THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: STREAMERS (1983)

After the critical success of his cinematic adaptation of Ed Graczyk‘s Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Robert Altman set his sights Streamers, the last in playwright David Rabe’s trilogy of pieces surrounding the Vietnam war. Self-financed and shot on the quick in Dallas, Streamers almost means to be the y-chromosome mirror of the distaff 5 & Dime, jumping right into the center of a drab Army barrack in 1965 that doubles as a Petri dish of different corners of masculinity, either real, imagined, or put on. Like 5 & Dime, the tensions between the characters in Streamers are mostly sexual, though a strong dose of racial politics is thrown into the pot, causing it to be more explosive, even if it results in a less engaging and satisfying film.

To be sure, mirroring is crucial throughout Altman’s filmography but it becomes incredibly important during his 80’s period where he was able to get layers and dimensions in limited settings by raising the dramatic stakes and casting his characters off one another. This often leads the characters to either look at themselves in the past or, more importantly, see themselves as they really are in the present. This was driven home quite literally with a mirror prop in 5 & Dime but it’s just as prevalent here as Streamers is about a group of trapped men as they await their deployment to Vietnam. Billy (Matthew Modine) and Roger (David Alan Grier) are pals who bounce off of each other quite well but their friendship is stressed just by the fact that one is black and one is white. Across the room bunks Richie (Michael Lichtenstein), an openly gay soldier who senses a certain uncertainty in Billy, who reacts to Richie’s provocations in ways that causes the audience to sense the uncertainty, as well. Added to this mix is the combustible Carlyle (Michael Wright), three months into his service and already on the brink of a psychotic collapse, and the perpetually soused Cokes (George Dzundza) and Rooney (Guy Boyd), commanding officers damaged by so much carnage seen in World War II, Korea, and now Vietnam, that all they can do is stay drunk and wait for death to take away the pain.

Despite Rabe being a downmarket Harold Pinter when it came to making opaque observations, and a certain archness to some of the performances in the film, there is a great deal that works in Streamers. In choosing the material, Altman certainly was able to save a few bucks due to its appropriately stripped-down and uncluttered set (this was probably the easiest paycheck production designer Wolf Kroeger ever earned) which adds to the heavy pall of ennui and almost maddening claustrophobia. Additionally, cinematographer Pierre Mingot’s fluid camera refuses to be nailed down in the third row and, instead, floats alongside the bunks and up their metal railings mostly acting as an observer of listeners rather than an optical mechanism, revealing more about the characters than if they were center-framed delivering a monologue.

And as barren and solitary a set that it is, the barrack functions as both pinball machine and narrow hallway of time. Much of the dynamism occurs when Carlyle saunters into the room and bounces off each and every character as if they were bumpers, all the while Cokes and Rooney are always perched at the end of the barrack, segregated further, representing the destiny of each and every one of these men that will survive the dehumanizing machine of war.

The majority of the performances, too, are aces and spot on. Modine and Grier display an uncomfortable rapport that is much different than the unease felt whenever either are dealing with the absolutely excellent Lichtenstein. Each character’s baggage gets tossed on top of the other until the whole thing collapses when the weight of Carlyle is added. A swaggering mix of rage, sadness, menace, and down-low vulnerability, his character is the wild card who drags the ugly truth out of all of the other characters. But as played by Michael Wright, the character becomes the most boorish and stage-bound; a dynamic performance full of rage and emotion but played to the back row and lacking in the subtleties befitting a screen performance. As it sits, he’s definitely the focus of attention whenever he’s on the screen but the audience ends up spending too much time watching him chew his way through whatever scenery there is. This, by the way, is not on Wright, who would go on to do amazing work on Oz, but, instead, it’s on Altman who had a responsibility to calibrate his actors to match the size and scope of the material. Though tackling the material for the big screen can’t be seen as anything but brave in 1983, it appears that, with Wright, Altman caught a fish too big for the boat in which he was sailing.

Earlier, the word “trapped” was used to describe the situation of the men and it is used both figuratively and literally as Streamers is best approached as a a work about men who are trapped. They are trapped in the service, trapped in a war, trapped in their own minds, trapped in bodies that are failing, trapped in bodies that are responding in ways that upset them, or trapped in a socioeconomic nightmare not of their making. For all the talk and introspection, when the credits roll, the men will have made choices and will be trapped even further. Same as it ever was.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

Off Limits aka Saigon

What do you think of when the Viet Nam war comes up in conversation? Platoon? Apocalypse Now? Born On The 4th Of July? All great films, but one I like to call attention to is Off Limits, a sweaty, disturbing murder mystery set in the heat of Saigon during the height of the war. Someone is brutally murdering prostitutes in the brothels, raising enough of a stir that Army cops Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines are called in to investigate all fronts. Because this is war and anything close to an organized procedural is hopeless, there’s a creepy, lawless feel to their work as they probe American GI’s, shady local characters and even US military honchos. This is an unpleasant, royally fucked up film that isn’t easy to sit through or warm up to, but it’s brilliantly made and the sheer level of feverish intensity kept up by everyone involved has to be commended. Dafoe is reserved but lethal when necessary while Hines brings the humour as a guy who creates a flippant smokescreen to hide just how sharp he really is. Fred Ward plays their commanding officer of sorts terrifically but it’s Scott Glenn who lays down one absolute WTF of a performance as a psychopathic American colonel with some disgusting extracurricular habits, one hell of a nasty attitude and probably the single funniest and most unnerving death scene I’ve ever seen. Keep a lookout for Richard Brooks, David Alan Grier and Keith David in solid turns as GI’s who are immediately suspects because in a climate this volatile, everyone is. A fantastic film that fires on all cylinders, is exceptionally well made and very overlooked but be warned: you’ll want to take five or six showers after those credits roll.

-Nate Hill

John Herzfeld’s 15 Minutes

John Herzfeld’s 15 Minutes is a mean, fucked up movie and I love it’s sketched out, darkly satirical edge, its a ruthless sendup of the media that plays like Network by way of Natural Born Killers. America is the land of opportunity, especially for those with sinister intentions, as two nasty Eastern European criminals (Karel Roden and Oleg Taktarov) find out when they step off the boat in New York and almost immediately begin committing heinous acts of wanton violence and murder, filming it with a cheap camcorder and selling the footage to a tabloid news station run by sleazy anchorman Kelsey Grammar. Robert DeNiro angers it up as an alcoholic, loose cannon homicide cop on the trail of these two lunatics and chasing a bit of limelight for himself. It’s a hopped up, very stylized premise that gets the down n’ dirty, highly lurid treatment and doesn’t have much to put in a positive light, but as a farcical thriller it really works. DeNiro gets reasonable facetime and kills it but isn’t in the showcase arc you’d usually see, while Ed Burns plays an arson investigator (“you’re just a fireman with a badge”) who works alongside him. The real star here is Roden though as the chief baddie, a breakout performance as the worst kind of villain, one who isn’t necessarily after anything but just wants to fuck your shit up real bad for fun and then exploit the joke of a legal system and walk scott free. “I love America, nobody is responsible for what they do” he purrs at Burns, and there’s a stinging grain of truth to that. The cast is killer here with work from Vera Farmiga, Martha Plimpton, Melinda Kanakaredes, David Alan Grier, Anton Yelchin, Avery Brooks, Kim Cattrall, Paul Herman, Ritchie Coster and a cool cameo from Charlize Theron. Don’t expect much of an uplift or positive note anywhere here, it’s a thoroughly ill spirited, maladjusted story, but like the messed up crime scenes these two antagonists drum up simply for exposure, it’s kind of hard not to look away or enjoy yourself through pure morbid fascination alone.

-Nate Hill

Jumanji: A Review by Nate Hill 

In the jungle you must wait, until the dice reads five or eight. So professes a mysterious board game possessed by dark magic to young Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd), a boy with no clue just how far an innocent roll of the dice can take you. From the first ominous drumbeat the game utters, until the last fading tones it plays the film out with, Jumanji is a giddy rush of pure adventure, with a refreshingly dark and primal side to its mayhem. Alan disappears from the 1950’s and we fast forward 25 years later. Young orphans Peter and Judy (Kirsten Dunst & Bradley Pierce) are moving into his old family home, so fate (and those damn creepy drums) would have them find the Jumanji in the attic, and continue the game Alan started with Sarah (Bonnie Hunt) over a decade ago. Suddenly every jungle creature, meteorological phenomenon and 90’s CGI monster erupts from the game into their little town, causing a mess that goes beyond the word havoc. This includes a near feral middle aged Alan, now played by Robin Williams. Together with a most reluctant Sarah, the quartet try to stop the destruction, play the game, but mostly just survive this onslaught. Psychotic monkeys, mutant mosquitoes, an elephant stampede, monsoons, giant spiders (fucking shudder) and crocodiles are but a few of the wonders awaiting them. My favourite has to be murderous Victorian game hunter Van Pelt, played mightily by stage actor Jonathan Hyde, with a pith helmet and an epic mustache that would make Kurt Russell chortle. Hyde does excellent double duty as both the deranged hunter and Alan’s stern but loving father, a tough contrast he handles like a champ. I admire the film’s willingness to go creepy and dark, despite being geared towards kids. The danger feels real, the game has an eerie mysticism to it, a life of it’s own that gives you goosebumps. Not often do family orientated films have a shred of real fear in them anymore, so let’s count our blessings with this one, still holding strong today. The special effects are dated in places (those monkeys, man) and wonderful in others (that hardwood floor quicksand tho), but you have to cut them some slack, it being 1996 after all. Williams and Hunt have snarky banter that barely hides their love for each other, and it’s one of my favourite onscreen pairings he ever had with a gal. He makes Alan resourceful, kind and just a little bit crazy, but the guy did spend years alone in a treacherous jungle straight out of your nightmares, so that can be expected. Amidst the chaos you can look out for Patricia Clarkson, a deadpan Bebe Neurith and David Alan Grier as well. There’s a lot of stuff crammed into the film, but never does it feel bloated or crippled by it’s own weight, flowing nicely and taking time where it can to develop character and give it’s human cast just as much to do as all the crazy jungle stuff. I’m surprised I never saw any of this go down as a kid, because parts of it were filmed blocks from my neighborhood, and CGI was scant back then, so much of it would have physically been there, large and loud. Maybe I did, and have since forgotten. I definitely haven’t forgotten any of the film, though, and allow for repeated viewings whenever I have the time. It’s one of the best, most thrilling adventure stories of its time and ages well as each year passes. Cue the drums.