Stephen King’s The Shining

This is going to be a tough one to review no matter how I slice it, so I’ll be upfront with my thoughts and afterwards I’m open to any and all discussions regarding them: I finally got a chance to watch the entire miniseries of Stephen King’s The Shining from 1997 (not in the right order I might add, as the discs in my DVD set were somehow labelled wrong) and in quite a few ways I much prefer it to Stanley Kubrick’s film, which I also love and consider a stronger piece in some aspects as well. Please hear me out: it’s no secret that King prefers this one and that it follows his book far more closely than than Kubrick’s film, but this was irrelevant to me as I’ve never read the book. What I enjoyed a lot about this is that it dives far deeper into the character of Jack Torrence, here played by Steven Weber in a performance I much prefer over Nicholson’s, his alcoholism and inability to control the addiction and anger issues, how that mirrors the evil forces at the Overlook Hotel who are trying to win over his soul and prompt him to murder his wife Wendy (Rebecca DeMornay) and son Danny (Courtland Mead). Here we see Jack go from a loving husband and father and slowly disintegrate into the deranged, possessed lunatic that stalks his family through the hallways in the third act. But what struck me here is how we clearly see a good yet troubled man with demons in his past who encounters new and very literal ones in the present yet fights fiercely against them, we see a clear trajectory from decent man to stressed out cabin fever victim to unwitting host of dark forces to full on, mentally deranged homicidal maniac and it’s an actual *arc* as opposed to Jack Nicholson, who just seemed like a loony oddball right off the bat and never earns or even asks for your sympathy or understanding. Now, what falls flat here? I mean obviously it’s made for TV miniseries so it feels chopped up by the obligatory commercial breaks and just, you know, has that ‘TV feel’ that’ll knock it down a peg in the eyes of cinephiles by default alone. There’s some startlingly terrible CGI including hedge animals that come to life, that could have totally been done with practical effects and just look laughable. The weakest link though is this young actor Courtland Mead who plays Danny, he is just painfully unbearable to even look at and when he talks you just want to flip the coffee table over, *very* bad casting choice. The dynamic between Jack and Wendy is explored far more in depth here with entire sequences devoted to dialogue that feels like a beautifully dark stage play unfolding, scenes that are incredibly well acted and affecting. The supporting cast is terrific with work from Pat Hingle, Melvin Van Peebles, Miguel Ferrer, Shawnee Smith, Elliott Gould in a brittle cameo as the Overlook’s bluntly skeptical owner and Stanley Anderson in a chilling turn as the place’s former caretaker, the ghostly Delbert Grady. One way in which this truly outshone Kubrick’s for me is location: this was shot at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado where King actually wrote much of the book and my god does it ever show; breathtaking Rocky mountain vistas surround the place, the architecture is baroque and creepy and gorgeous all at once and there’s just this atmospheric alpine feel outdoors and this spooky, lived-in aura within the building that drew me right in. Weber is truly terrifying, deeply sympathetic and even frequently very funny and candid as Jack, it’s an overlooked performance that struck many chords with me and felt palpably threatening, despite the fact the he carries around a Denver croquet mallet instead of an axe. I could go on, but the simple truth is this is more up my horror alley overall, it feels like a campfire tale, decidedly genre and very hot blooded, dramatic and full of rich storytelling whereas Kubrick’s, no doubt an incredible film that I also enjoy quite a bit, simply comes across as colder, more detached, scant on King’s mythology and ideas with a far less developed and intriguing Jack Torrence and very much like an art film in many instances. I love both, but this version just vibes with me more, and I don’t know what else to say, really.

-Nate Hill


The Paramount logo appears in black and white and in a state of mismanaged distress. This is quickly followed by a calm pre-title credit countdown; Three, the studio… two, the producers… one, the director. Then, the blast off occurs with a voice that booms “NOW AFTER YEARS IN THE MAKING…” revealing a commercial for the film’s soundtrack album that will also operate as the film’s opening credit sequence. Welcome to Nashville, Tennessee in 1975, a reflection of an America that could be marketed just like a K-Tel record. Years in the making but here for your enjoyment “in stereophonic sound and without commercial interruption.”

Robert Altman’s Nashville is ground zero for reflecting America’s unhealthy appetite for mixing celebrity and politics and it savagely and meticulously lays bare the ugly mechanisms that fuel both enterprises and also our collective and insatiable obsessions with them. It’s about a post-war, post-Eisenhower America being left behind as a perverted geek show of wrong-headed populism, shameless grifters, and shallow entertainment tightens its grip on a nation that has been so beaten down and disillusioned that a earnest yet moronic song like “200 Years,” an anthem that marvels at America’s ability to withstand trials and tribulations long enough to last two whole centuries, can be mistakenly presented as a chest-bursting piece of patriotism instead of the hilariously stupid self-own that it is.

Nashville is the story of a few days in the life of twenty-four people in the titular city in which there are two defining events afoot. One of them is the re-emergence of country artist Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), the undisputed but fragile queen of Nashville who’s been convalescing after a recent “flaming baton” incident. The other is the organization of a political rally for Hal Phillip Walker, presidential candidate for the populist, third-party “Replacement Party,” and winner of enough recent primaries to make the political establishment sweat. Through these two events, which will eventually thread together, we follow a whole host of country stars, political advance men, groupies, journalists, bored husbands, their even more bored wives, rock stars, hangers-on, has-beens, never-weres, kooks, and earnest fans. There’s a lot of information that floats at the viewer like an unstoppable current but Altman, with the help of a framework screenplay by Joan Tewkesbury, links all of these characters together with an uncanny skill and a uniquely American eye.

Up until 1975, there had not been a film quite like Nashville. Sure, star-studded films in the vein of Grand Hotel had been produced and were crowd-pleasing successes, but even those felt more like omnibus tales and less like a grand tapestry in which there truly is no lead character. Nashville was the first film to spread its giant cast comfortably across the widescreen canvas while also making them feel as they were part of something that was bubbling with vitality and was recognizably and organically alive. And in fact, Nashville exists in a space where real stars such as Elliott Gould and Julie Christie appear alongside characters portrayed by actors with whom they’ve worked before. Additional life is given to the film in the way it integrates likewise authentic locations like the Grand Old Opry (replete with a real GOO audience) being utilized for the actors to authentically perform songs that they wrote and brought to the project themselves. While the greatest example of this form of Altman commitment likely goes to the mock presidential campaign that crossed paths with very real ones in Altman’s Tanner ‘88 (which, not coincidentally, featured Michael Murphy as the central visible political figure), Nashville was the first to truly make an Altman production the kind of all-in communal effort he’d been tinkering with since McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

In the spirit of how our lives actually unfold, Nashville is a big movie built of little things. Broad gags such as the freeway pileup at the beginning and the climactic ending aren’t subtle nor are they hard to forget but the heart of the film is found in its small, fleeting passages such as the moment where Barbara Jean’s manipulative, boorish husband/manager, Barnett (Allen Garfield) blows her a kiss as she hits an emotionally terse high note while struggling to get through a musical set without a meltdown. It’s a film that recognizes the hurt on Mary’s (Cristina Rains) face when the vacuous Opal From the BBC (Geraldine Chaplin) announces that she, too, has slept with Tom (Keith Carradine), Mary’s musical partner to whom she’s truly in love despite being married to Bill (Allan Nicholls), the third in their musical trio. It’s a film that makes no judgements in understanding the delta between the feelings of frustration felt by Delbert Reece (Ned Beatty) and the joy felt by his wife, Linnea (Lilly Tomlin), while listening to their deaf son’s story about swimming class. It’s a film that picks up on the absolute contempt, punctuated by camera-ready smiles, that floods the face of Connie White (Karen Black) as she waits in the wings at the Grand Old Opry to fill in for Barbara Jean, a woman she positively hates. Finally, it’s a film that documents the sometimes ugly birth of stardom as it allows Barbara Harris’s unlikely and wonderfully ragged Albuquerque, a total hot mess of bleached hair, torn stockings, mismatched outfits, and wild dreams of becoming a “country western singer and or a star,” to triumphantly rise above tragedy, fully embodying American’s broken soul.

Nashville is also very good at both covering all of its bases and existing on a wavelength of recognizable ebbs and flows. It’s not satisfied with Gene Triplett’s (Michael Murphy) smug disdain for the people of Nashville as he tries to schmooze each and every star or half star into the Walker rally; it’s satisfied when it gets to show his utter shamelessness, following him into the hotel room of Tom and Mary where he attempts to rook them into the same show by dismissing the appeal of the country music artists he’s worked to put on the bill as being limited to dumb shitkickers. It’s not satisfied by showing us Barbara Jean virtually being draped in an American flag while performing “One, I Love You”; it’s satisfied when, earlier in the film, the tragically untalented Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) gets booed off the stage at a smoker for performing the same song. It’s not satisfied to show self-absorbed Tom treating every single woman that moves through his hotel room like absolute garbage and with reckless abandon; it’s satisfied when Linnea returns the favor by coldly and wordlessly reminding him that she’s past a point in her life where her feelings can be manipulated by a casual fling, even by him.

Nashville was the last time Altman keenly anticipated the culture and, in fact, the film’s ending became a reference point when Mark David Chapman assassinated John Lennon five years after the film’s release. But created in the haze between Richard Nixon’s resignation and the ascension of Jimmy Carter, Altman found the most fertile possible ground for the ascendancy of the campaign of a sleazy idiot like Hal Phillip Walker. For all the ink spilled on the prophetic nature of Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Network, released the following year, the bone-headed populism at the root of Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign has had longer legs with American culture. After all, not by coincidence, Altman would find the depths of the Reagan years to be the perfect time to recast Hal Phillip Walker as a (still unseen by the audience) right-wing television talking head in his unnecessarily maligned O.C. and Stiggs. The chord of Hal Phillip Walker and how it would likely eat America from the inside out was something that must have troubled and disgusted Altman to such a degree that, after Nashville, Altman ceased reporting on the culture and, in a manner of fashion, tried to do more to influence it (to diminishing returns) with specific elements found in A Perfect Couple, Quintet, and HealtH.

Nashville caused quite stir when it was released and it was uniformly detested by the Nashville community. Of course, this should be expected as, outside the coasts, most every place in America which feels like it’s keeping her memory pure has an almost insatiable desire to appear as unblemished as one of Tom Wolfe’s freshly-pressed suits. But what did Nashville reveal that was so objectionable? That, despite their cornpone humility, folks in the south can be just as petty, uninformed, and judgmental as those in New York or Los Angeles? That reductive, simple-minded country weepies like “For the Sake of the Children” could actually be hits? That there exists a ruthless power structure within the bowels of show business, regardless of what region of the country one finds themselves? That black country entertainers like Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) have to often grit their teeth and accept the transactional relationship they have with their majority-white milieu? That boredom and infidelity occur in spades, even in places where seemingly everyone goes to church on Sunday morning, even if that house of worship is a hospital chapel? If Nashville, the city, was so bent out of shape at the content explored in Nashville, the film, then they simply revealed that the flame put to their hypocrisy was justified. Just as, in an effort to move forward, Shelley Duvall’s Keechie resigned herself to repeating the untruth that the father of her child died of consumption in Thieves Like Us, perhaps Nashville (and America as a whole) keeps its engine humming along on the fuel of an untenable false narrative about itself that is two parts hubris and one part tomfoolery, lacking any ability or desire to take account of itself.

In 2017, I was asked to list my top ten films of all time and I chose Nashville as number two (for the record, Peter Yates’s Breaking Away will never not be number one). At that time, I talked about how the election of Donald Trump evoked the memories of the end of the film and how America was basically conditioned to just sing and move on after catastrophic events without proper acknowledgment or collective reflection. Since that time, we’ve lived through a pandemic in which the former president couldn’t have cared less that half a million Americans died on his watch. We also saw a deadly insurrection in Washington D.C. at the behest of that same president. With the help of performative politicians who traffic in shallow patriotism with low-rent celebrities, the disreputable, right-wing media has created a cultural situation in which logic is untoward and facts are verboten, preparing us for a future that is as terrifying as it is unpredictable. But in our relative, localized comfort, we still continue to do the same thing as Haven Hamilton does at the end of Nashville; bloodied and bruised, we will call everything to order and give the microphone to someone… anyone… who will hopefully distract us from the pain and the damage. Up until now, this formula has always worked though, as sure as I’m sitting here writing this, one day it won’t. But, until that day, “It Don’t Worry Me” won’t be just a song in this film, it’ll stand as our glib, alternative-national anthem.

America the doomed, the damndest thing you ever saw.


“You know, I know, rent means dough,

Landlord goin’ kick us in the cold, cold snow.

Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown,

What you goin’ do when the rent comes round?”

-Harry Von Tilden

“Pal… I’m gonna win!!!”

So says George Segal’s Bill Denny as he’s being flattened by the pressures of his overdue gambling debts, his irritated bookie, and being stuck in the unenviable position of having run out of personal items to sell for gambling money. It should also be said that he’s been on one hell of an impressive losing streak over the past couple of weeks. But, still, gripped by the kind of desperation that occurs when there are no options left, he says that he’s going to win a high rolling poker match in Reno as if it’s an absolute certainty. Given his circumstances, what the hell else is he going to say?

Robert Altman’s California Split is a film that understands that specific kind of desperation better than any movie I’ve ever seen. It also has a lot to say about dysfunction, camaraderie, semi-homoerotic male bonding, codependency, ennui, danger, disappointment, and, finally, the empty feeling one has after going jowls-deep into the depths of your own mania. For a small movie about two lost souls who luck out to find each other and enjoy a few eventful weeks together, California Split, one of Altman’s very best efforts, is alive in a way other films can only dream of being.

After randomly being seated at the same table at an L.A. poker club and then escaping the wrath of a fellow player who might as well wear a cape that says “sore loser,” Bill and Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould, never cooler than he is here) connect again in a nearby bar where Charlie’s infectious and quick witted assessments on basketball wagers win Bill over. Soon, they’re drunkenly staring over a graveyard of empty beer glasses and making low-stakes, bullshit bets as to whether or not they can name all seven dwarfs in their present condition. The evening ends with them getting beaten up, robbed of their winnings, arrested, and then, in the hazy, early morning hours, bailed out of jail by Gould’s call girl roommates (Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles, both unforgettable and fantastic) which then leads to a fruitful, winning partnership.

There are many things going on under the surface but there truly is a sly romantic comedy at the heart of California Split. Sure it’s not very conventional but I’m not sure what other subgenre creates the kind of unfettered joy Bill and Charlie feel when they’re around each other. There are times that George Segal is smiling so widely, you can see all of his back teeth and fear that somehow the top half of his head may become unhooked from his lower jaw. As the movie rolls along, their relationship ebbs and flows as winning and losing streaks exchange hands leading to a temporary separation, a reconciliation, and one last big dance before finally breaking up. The film is set during the Christmas season but it’s not something the audience would notice given Altman’s insistence on keeping the two protagonists cloistered in the details of their own world and blinded by their mutual, raw enthusiasm for action and each other’s company.

The film immediately frames Elliott Gould’s flashy Charlie in stark contrast to George Segal’s more buttoned-down Bill. They come off as two very different guys but, in the granular, they really aren’t all that different. Charlie may seem like the wise guy motormouth who is careening toward disaster but it’s actually Bill who is on the path to rack and ruin. Charlie is just already there; a smooth-talking loser who takes life one day at a time and doesn’t even pretend to give a hang about a day job. He bets like a chaos agent and doesn’t seem to care whether he wins or loses. Bill, on the other hand, still keeps an office in the startup magazine for which he works though it’s not clear if he’s paid for writing, which we never see him do, or avoiding his boss (an impossibly young Jeff Goldblum), at which he’s more adept. And though it’s not explicitly telegraphed, the audience gets the sense that Bill’s failed marriage is probably still within view in the rear view mirror and that a reconciliation wouldn’t necessarily be completely out of the question.

But the screenplay by Joseph Walsh (who turns up as Sparkie, Bill’s bookie whose patience has finally run out) is less interested in the well-worn path of personal redemption when it comes its characters as, a recovering gambling addict himself, Walsh understands that the joys of the compulsive gambler are small, fleeting, and infrequent. After Bill runs a streak that nets $84,000, he goes into a semi-trance and shakily rids every pocket of its gambling chips as if he’s vomiting after a particularly impressive bender. Exhausted, he holds his head in his hands as the life is drained out of him. Even winning is painful and empty. “Don’t mean a fuckin’ thing, does it?” Charlie observes.

While he had churned out a few masterpieces in the previous four years, California Split cemented Robert Altman as one of his generation’s most observational filmmakers. Standing the tallest in a class that included Paul Mazursky, Jonathan Demme, and Hal Ashby, Altman reveled in the details and quirky inhabitants that (still) make America unique and special. Early in the film, the audience is treated to a mini-drama that erupts between a bottomless go-go dancer and her gambling addicted girlfriend which ends with the dancer having to borrow against her earnings just to get the girlfriend out of the bar. It’s a small moment that occurs courtesy of Altman’s penchant for overlapping dialogue and roaming camera but it comes alive and makes three-dimensional people out of who would be nothing more than glorified extras living on the edge of the frame in a lesser filmmaker’s work. Altman argues for an America being a country of Mom and Apple Pie as long as we understand that Mom is a hooker named Barbara who compulsively reads the TV Guide to unwind and Apple Pie is Froot Loops (or Lucky Charms, your choice) and beer. It’s an America of gambling superstitions, all night brothels, and Friday night prize fights. It’s an America choking on a cloud of cigarette smoke in tiny rooms with poor ventilation, watered down drinks at the racetrack, and lonely people perfumed in Shalimar. In short, it’s not Norman Rockwell’s America but, instead, an America that actually exists.

At the end of the film, Bill and Charlie go their separate ways with the former saying “I gotta go home.” But Charlie can see Bill even when Bill refuses to see himself. Charlie knows Bill doesn’t live anywhere outside the action and that he’s only pretending that he does. For there was probably a time in his life that Charlie admitted that he, too, had to go home only to realize that, sadly, he was already home. All of this is unspoken, by the way. It’s just that California Split is that rarity of a movie where the dialogue tells us plenty but the characters’ actions tell us more.


Philip Marlowe has been asleep. Whether it’s been a literal and continuous Big Sleep that has lasted since we last saw the man in 1946 is unclear. But there are clues scattered about which suggest that it is. First off, genius screenwriter Leigh Brackett is back with another adaptation of a Raymond Chandler opus just as she was all those years earlier when she was Howard Hawks’s scribbler of choice. But regardless of the initial and obvious familiarity, things are markedly different than the last time we saw Marlowe. For the hope and exuberance of postwar 1946 has given way to the cultural malaise of 1973, a time where the fabric of the country was disintegrating under the twin stresses of Vietnam and Watergate and everything we thought we understood about America was turned upside down and was perpetually under audit.

Robert Altman’s masterful The Long Goodbye was the first in a wave of neo-noir films that flooded the American cinemas in the 1970’s. Along with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, and Robert Benton’s The Late Show (produced by Altman and both cast and crewed by many of his regulars), these films took the antique formula of the dogged private eye and turned it on its ear by examining the current culture through the newly-minted, cynical lenses of the Boomer Generation or making a contemporary allegory out of an old-fashioned period piece. In all of the cases, there was a strong, moralistic tone regarding right and wrong that would crack as the film unspooled and the hero found that he no longer recognized the world he was in, a theme that cut deeply with the intended audience.

This is strongest and most evident in The Long Goodbye, which, not coincidentally, was the first of the bunch. In it, private eye Philip Marlowe is juxtaposed immediately with a cinematic fantasy. As “Hooray For Hollywood” scratches its way over the soundtrack and we survey the lodgings of one of pop culture’s most indelible and toughest detectives, we immediately sense that something has gone directly to seed. Instead of clean-lined Humphrey Bogart, we get fuzzy, wrinkled, and unshaven Elliott Gould. And instead of having to jump into his car in the middle of the night to solve a hot mystery under the darkness of the Los Angeles night, Marlowe’s cat simply wakes him up because he’s hungry and wants some food.

While the trip to the grocery store for the cat food supplies the film with its most potent allegory about trust, it also serves to crosscut an escape from the Malibu Colony by one Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), lifelong buddy of Marlowe currently bruised and battle-scarred after a tussle with his wife, Sylvia. As he drives to Marlowe’s pad to request an emergency, middle of the night escort to Tijuana, Terry surveys the physical damage to his person; deep scratch on the face with a swollen and bruised hand. When Sylvia Lennox shows up beaten to death fifteen minutes into the film and Terry confesses to her murder in his own suicide note, Marlowe goes on a personal crusade to clear his friend’s name. In doing so, he mixes with an alcoholic writer (Sterling Hayden), the writer’s icy blonde wife (Nina van Palllandt), an equal opportunity mafioso (Mark Rydell), and a quack doctor (Henry Giibson).

Clad in a cheap black suit that never comes off his corpus and prowling about in his 1948 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet with a bottomless supply of non-filtered Lucky Strikes, Marlowe stumbles through blanched, early 70’s L.A. in a total haze. Still smart enough to sniff out phony amateurs and bumbling hoods, Marlowe never seems to understand the gravity of his current situation or the physical stakes involved. And in direct opposition to Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep where Philip Marlowe seemed to glide through a studio-built Los Angeles with horny women throwing themselves at him without any effort on the part of Humphrey Bogart, Gould’s Marlowe can’t even negotiate a fruitful conversation with Mrs. Tewksbury, real estate agent to the rich and famous. “It’s ok with me,” a catchphrase he’ll employ throughout the film to signify his acceptance of any given situation without any shred of understanding, seems to fly out of his mouth with more frequency the closer the film gets to its conclusion.

What makes The Long Goodbye unique is that, like the other genre-blasting offerings by Altman, this is a detective film without much of a mystery at its center. Marlowe seems more intent on convincing himself of Lennox’s innocence than he really cares about clearing Lennox’s name and, like so many other Altman heroes, there is more than a touch of self-deception at play with Philip Marlowe. Lost in a landscape where ideals have become malleable, trust is transactional, and macaroni costs more than a quarter, Marlowe desperately builds a case out of the wildest of red herrings so he can continue to float along through life with his core values intact. Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes is gutted by the larger graft that has seared him very personally and Gene Hackman’s Harry Moseby is frustrated at his inability to see three moves ahead of him but Philip Marlowe believes in a kind of idealistic clarity better suited for a time long since vanished, if it even ever really existed at all.

It isn’t until about the the middle of Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, itself ostensibly a whodunit about a call girl killer, that the film’s mystery is lifted and the audience knows the identity of the murderer well before the titular cop figures it out. In The Long Goodbye, the detail of Terry Lennox’s bruised hand being concealed by the driving gloves is something told to the audience but not Marlowe and it is a reveal that occurs before the opening credits end. In essence, Altman wants us to know that Marlowe will spend the rest of the film being played for a sucker and expending a ton of shoe leather just to get his heart broken. In a world that’s gone all wrong, Marlowe is all right. Unfortunately for him, he’s all wrong in a world where, by his own constant admission, it’s all ok with him.


By Patrick Crain

And then there was M*A*S*H.

Once upon a time, fifty one years ago to be exact, long before the block programming of post-Carson syndication would lull my generation to sleep with the overly familiar, brassy theme song “Suicide is Painless” before drifting into the recorder-driven opening for Taxi, M*A*S*H was a third-priority Korean War film about which the suits at 20th Century Fox barely cared. For their eyes were collectively on both Tora! Tora! Tora!, a multi-helmed, transcontinental production and Patton, a star vehicle for George C. Scott. Over the hill in Calabasas, California and amongst the knotty hills of brown and olive was Robert Altman and a ragtag bunch of nobody actors making a picture about a war that was already mostly forgotten. He brought it in on time and under-budget so the suits were happy.

Well, they were happy until they saw what Robert Altman had done to Ring Lardner Jr’s adaptation of Richard Hooker’s novel about Army surgeons. A structureless mess of anarchy one would have to have been a detective to recognize as “not Vietnam,” M*A*S*H was everything the aging brass at Fox would have rather avoided. In fact, to drive home the point that it was set in Korea, the suits demanded Altman include a post-credit crawl making explicit that THIS was a film about a PREVIOUS war, implying that this was not at all to be misconstrued as to be sending up the current administration and our involvement in the conflict in Vietnam.

I mean… ok. But it’s Vietnam. And that’s probably a good thing because the core audience that lifted M*A*S*H to its dizzying heights of financial and critical success was the cynical Boomer generation who was more than ready to pick up what Altman and company was putting down. The late and lamented father of a buddy of mine used to speak about seeing M*A*S*H in the theater in tones so reverent, they were probably better suited to stories about the birth of his son. “We had to go back and watch it again immediately to pick up the stuff we missed,” he said.

And, of course, M*A*S*H is really where Altman’s style blossomed which caused one to want to go back and watch it again. And maybe that’s not by choice but accident. After all, his previous three films all seemed much more tightly bound by story and plot. Regardless of whatever the screenplay was or the source material from which it sprung, Altman decided M*A*S*H was a mood and not a story and all but chucked the script; something that made Lardner none too pleased until, ironically, he picked up an Oscar for his troubles. Bracketed by the arrival and departure of Col. Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) to and from the 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit which is mere miles from the front, M*A*S*H zips through its running time dividing itself between the zany antics of the irreverent surgeons and the horrendous detail of their gruesome work. When the film settles down into the operating rooms, the film turns shockingly gory and, additionally, gets awash in so much overlapping dialogue regarding surgical procedural and other ephemera that the audience never once thinks that Sutherland and Skerritt (and Elliott Gould who shows up as ace chest surgeon “Trapper John” McIntyre), aren’t actual doctors.

It is in this busy canvass of toil and work that Altman can let his focus run free and drift in and out of clusters of people, all engaged in their own private worlds. The multi-tracked soundtrack he’d perfect in Nashville gets its first workout here as stacked conversations force the viewer to choose one and stick with it only to realize you’ve drifted into another conversation that somehow seemed adjoined to the other. That Altman could do this at will and almost any film was pure magic and the biggest reason his films have such long legs in terms of their conduciveness for revisiting. And M*A*S*H is Altman’s first film to have the wide and warm tapestry of supporting players who fade in and out of the scenery in half-measures but all of whom we feel as if we know by the time the closing credits run. It is around this time that Altman begins to toy with building communities within his films. A practice that would run to the release of Popeye (and non-release of HealtH) in 1980, Altman’s productions became something of a communal experience with actors being chosen as types and then asked to flesh them out on the screen while using the script only as a loose framework (most notably in the following year’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller). In M*A*S*H, we come to adore secondary characters such as Major Frank Burns (the extra dry Roger Bowen), Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois, having a ball), Painless Pole Waldowski (John Shuck, making history by dropping the very first instance of the word “fuck” in a scripted motion picture by a major studio), and Corporal Radar O’ Reilly (Gary Burghoff, the only cast member to make the transition to the television adaptation).

The film might have a cruel misogynistic streak by today’s standards and there are plenty of people who will impose all the current social values and norms to a fifty year old movie without applying much context to the discussion. But while it would be silly and irresponsible to cancel it outright, M*A*S*H shouldn’t be let off the hook completely. For it is true that the kind of cruelty heaped upon Major Margaret “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman, bringing a fire to the role that nabbed her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress) is of an aggressively sexual and misogynistic nature but Altman wants to make sure that it’s not entirely at the hands of the hands of men. In what is seen as the most overtly crude humiliation (namely the shower scene), it’s clear that the other women in the camp have as much disdain for her as the men and are likewise in on the prank. In M*A*S*H, the camp isn’t simply a “boy’s club,” but a “club for open hedonists.” Nobody cares that the aggressively hypocritical Frank Burns (a terrific Robert Duvall) and O’Houlihan are having sex, what they care about is Burns and O’ Houlihan’s attitudes about everyone else who are having sex. But, all of that said, that women are in on the prank in the movie cannot erase the fact that none of the filmmakers were women. In this world, O’Houlihan is tasked with the binary choice of dumbing down and shutting up or resigning her commission which everyone knows means everything to her. This is where the film’s aim to drag all authority down to a very low level, strong career women like O’Houlihan become collateral damage and its hard not see the the undermining of similar women characters of the era as a feature and not a bug. Luckily, Altman would get much better at this in a very big hurry.

So, for certain, M*A*S*H is a product of its time but it’s hard to overstate what a dynamite product it was. Nothing seemed scared after M*A*S*H. Hell, even the holy game of football, as American as war, gets pulled through the ringer in the film’s final act (with some footage courtesy of future trash auteur and Wide World of Sports pioneer, Andy Sidaris). At a time in which norms were crumbling by the second, M*A*S*H took dead center aim and laughed all the way to the bank as it stomped through all that we took seriously as a nation. The combination of our cathartic exhale and the film’s black humor proved quite therapeutic. And while the film launched a whole cottage industry of similar comedies in which anti-authoritarianism is taken to a sophomoric and perverse level, (it’s difficult to watch something like National Lampoon’s Animal House without seeing much of M*A*S*H’s DNA), Altman, now a superstar director with a monster hit under his belt, would be displaying his brand of fully-committed anarchy by the year’s end as the next trick up his sleeve would both equally dazzle and confuse and put on full display the fearless maverick that he truly was.

Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner

If you think Billy Bob Thornton was a Bad Santa wait until you see Christopher Plummer in The Silent Partner, he gives him a run for his money and then some as a psychopathic, profoundly evil criminal who hits a Toronto bank for all its worth disguised as the local mall Santa. Only problem is, shrewd bank teller Elliot Gould realizes he’s going to do it while he’s still casing the joint, steals all the cash for himself minutes before the hit, and thinks he’s got away with it. Plummer is also a smart dude here and not the kind of fellow you want to pull a stunt like that on, soon he comes around looking for the money he believes to rightfully be his and so ensues a vicious game of cat, mouse and morally bankrupt working professional as these two individuals, one not particularly likeable and the other downright abhorrent, battle each other for the prize. Two girls are involved with both of them, confused fellow bank teller Susannah York and French Canadian femme fatale Céline Lolez but they end up being more collateral damage in the narrative than anything else. So… this film has a huge cult following, glowing reputation and overall hype surrounding it and I wish I could fully get onboard with that, but I just wasn’t as taken by it as many seem to have been. I liked it, I didn’t love it. Let’s start with the film’s strongest asset: Christopher goddamn Plummer. The man goes fully into bizarro world here to play this character, and the guy is a villain for the ages. Heinously violent, gruesomely misogynistic, volcanically volatile, decked out in super femme eyeshadow and heaps of mascara and decorated with bangles of silver bling on every limb, he’s a flamboyantly nasty piece of work and steals the film, whether he’s being an evil Santa or showing up in drag which he gets to do later on. Gould plays his bank teller as very intelligent but also very awkward and somehow stilted in expression and line delivery, I couldn’t really get a sense of his character beyond stoic idiosyncrasy and I feel like he’s an actor who perhaps didn’t find his groove until later in his career when he appeared in stuff like Ocean’s 11, where he’s far more engaging and charismatic than this younger incarnation. Roger Ebert raved about this one being a taut, clockwork tight narrative and I kind of feel different.. the first and third acts are terrifically suspenseful, exciting and ruthless but the film’s midsection wastes a lot of runtime on languid romantic subplots featuring the two girls that don’t add much overall, don’t feel believable with a guy as odd as Gould’s character having that much game with the ladies and bog the narrative momentum down quite a bit. Still, when the film is in its highest gear it’s quite a mean machine, especially when Plummer has anything to say or do about it, which he does. Careful with this one if you’re sensitive about violence towards women, there’s a couple sequences that push the envelope on that just about are far as you can go (even by 1978 standards) and are tough to watch. I found this to be a good if not great suspense thriller with some very well done set pieces and plot turns, and one truly despicable turn from Plummer, who is also playing very against type and loving it. Not as much of a gem for me as it was for a lot of others, but definitely worth a watch.

-Nate Hill

Ocean’s Eight

I had a lot of fun with Ocean’s 8. I mean it’s no Ocean’s 11 but that’s a hard plateau to breach. If anything though, the heist this time around is a little more fun, a bit more showy and humorous too, and every one of the girls headlining the all star blow out of a cast has a ball and does great. Some viewers bitch that it uses the same peppy split screen techniques and apes the laid back score and charm of Soderbergh, but hello people, this is in the same franchise and it stands to reason that it would feel like the others. Sandra Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, brother to George Clooney’s now deceased Danny, which is a shame because I would have loved to see a partner up flick. She’s no less the troublemaker, and the film follows the same beats of her being paroled and immediately planning an elaborate heist with many moving parts, all carried out by a crew of carefully picked, charismatic scoundrels, starting with Cate Blanchett’s Lou, a streetwise small time crook with sass and style. Instead of three giant Vegas casinos, the plan this time is to lift a priceless diamond necklace (actually it clocks in somewhere around the 150 million range) from the hilariously faux prestigious Met Gala. The piece will be worn on the neck of persnickety, ditzy mega star Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), which requires a pickpocket (Awkwafina), a hacker (Rihanna), a fence (Sarah Paulsen), a fashionista (Helena Bonham Carter), a forger (Mindy Kaling), a few well placed cameos and plenty of hair-brained schemes within schemes along the way. Director Gary Ross keeps the mood light, fast paced but never too silly, letting each actress have their priceless moments. Hathaway was my favourite as the clueless diva who is exasperated by anyone in her orbit, and Bonham Carter nails an adorable Irish accent and scene steals the whole way through. I’ve heard complaints about originality and that it’s just a retread with chicks, and the may be so but it’s such a winning, fun formula! Who wouldn’t want more? They could do one with a bunch of dogs taking on a heist next and if the charm was there I’d be on-board because as it is, this is the perfect recipe for intelligent escapism and I enjoyed this one a lot.

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve

I enjoy Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve for a number of reasons, chief among them how decidedly different it is from Eleven. It’s like they not only chose to set it in Europe, but also to stylistically change the glib, cavalier Vegas aesthetic for an oddball, impenetrable Euro vibe that’s a lot weirder and more dense this time, and as such we have fun in a new fashion than the first. There’s also not just the laser focus of one singular, do or die heist but rather a string of robberies, betrayals and loose subplots flung around like diamonds, as well as a few cameos buried like Faberge Easter eggs. Good old Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) has tracked down Danny Ocean (George Clooney), Tess (Julia Roberts), Rusty (Brad Pitt) and their merry band of thieves across the pond to Europe, and he wants his money back from their epic Bellagio/Mirage/MGM Grand heist. This sets in motion an impossibility intricate, knowingly convoluted series of mad dash heists and classy encounters with the finest arch burglars Europe has to offer, including legendary thief the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel) and hilarious fence Eddie Izzard in full fussy mode. Everyone from Danny’s original team returns, from the scene stealing, cigar devouring Elliott Gould to the bickering brothers Casey Affleck and Scott Caan. Hell, even Topher Grace as himself is back, and that gigantic Vegas tough guy that fake brawled with Clooney the first time turns up for a spell. There’s fresh faces abound too, including sultry Catherine Zeta Jones as a cunning Interpol agent who’s on to their trail, no thanks to Pitt who happens to be dating her. Oh, and how about the surprise cameo which I won’t spoil except to say it’s tied into another pseudo cameo that’s so ingenious it can’t be explained, you just gotta see it. To be honest, the whole heist plot is one fabulously befuddled bag of nonsense, tomfoolery and monkeyshines, made no clearer with flashbacks, gimmicks, ulterior motives and cinematic trickery until we’re left wondering what in the fuck exactly happened. More so in Twelve though it’s about the journey, and not the destination, whereas Eleven made it clear that sights were set on completing that heist with dedicated tunnel vision. Here one is reminded of a bunch of Italians sitting around having coffee and chatting amongst themselves while they’re late for a meeting; they’ll get there eventually, but right now all that matters is how good the conversation and camaraderie is. Speaking of sitting around and talking, my favourite scene of the film is with Danny, Rusty, Matt Damon’s Linus and Robbie ‘Hagrid’ Coltrane, who plays an underworld contact. They’re sat in a Paris cafe talking, and they use nothing but a nonsense gibberish vernacular that seems to make sense to them all but Damon, but probably doesn’t to any of them, but the key is that they all remain cool, bluff each other out and have fun. That sums up the film in one aspect, a breezy blast of silliness that shouldn’t be examined too hard, but rather enjoyed at a hazy distance with a glass of fine wine. Good fun all round.

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven

I’ve seen Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven so many times I couldn’t count on the hands I have, or all twenty two of those attached to the gaggle of slick, fast talking lounge rats who pull of the most laidback, easygoing casino heist in Vegas history. Most heist flicks have a breathless cadence and at least one high powered action sequence. Not this baby. It’s like the weekend R&R of robbery films, the classy brunch of crime stories. Hell, even Heat, as hypnotic and subdued as it was, had gunplay here and there. It’s in that refusal to get its hands dirty, the insistence on a relaxed, pleasant vibe that has made it the classic it is today. George Clooney and Brad Pitt are iconic now as ex jailbird Danny Ocean and fast food enthusiast Rusty, two seasoned pros who plan to take down tycoon Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia, looking and sounding more constipated than a police commissioner at a 420 rally) and his three giant casinos. To do this, they round up the most eclectic bunch of scoundrels this side of the wild bunch, including fussy, flamboyant businessmen Elliot Gould, slick card shark Bernie Mac (“might as well call it white jack!”), twitchy techie Eddie Jamison, dysfunctional petty thief Matt Damon, eternally squabbling wheelmen brothers Casey Affleck and Scott Caan, acrobatic guru Shaobo Qin, rowdy safecracker Don Cheadle (with a piss poor attempt at a cockney accent, I might add) and grizzled grifter Carl Reiner. Oh, and a sultry Julia Roberts as Danny’s ex wife, because no caper flick would be complete without the high stakes and charm of a woman involved. What a pack. The logistics and steps of their plan have a labyrinthine feel to them, especially the sheepish twist that seems just easy enough to work and just far-fetched enough to earn friendly chuckles. Soderbergh did his own cinematography for this, which explains why the vision here is so singular and unforgettable; he shoots Vegas like a subdued nocturnal dreamscape full of fountain soaked vistas, dazzling light displays and ornate casino floors, and directs his actors with all the lithe, cordial and cucumber cool personas of the born n’ bred Vegas characters you can spot whilst on vacation there. Ebert wrote of this, “Serious pianists sometimes pound out a little honky-tonk, just for fun.. this is a standard genre picture, and Soderbergh, who usually aims higher, does it as sort of a lark.” Oh, Roger. This is my main pet peeve with film criticism and analysis: the distinct differentiation between ‘genre fare’ and ‘high art’, a snooty attitude that devalues both forms and axes a rift into a medium that at the end of the day, is all storytelling. Some of Soderbergh’s best films (this, Out Of Sight and last year’s Logan Lucky) are exercises in storytelling without the burden of subtext or lofty behind the scenes ambition, and are somewhat the better for it. Rant over. In any case, this is style, charm, wit and lovable caper shenanigans done just about as best as they could, and remains one of my favourite films of this century so far.

-Nate Hill

Robert Altman’s Nashville

You wouldn’t think that a disorganized little ensemble piece revolving around a country music festival could go on to become a silver star classic in cinema, but this is Robert Altman’s Nashville we’re talking about, and it’s a stroke of sheer brilliance. Structured with the same haphazard screenplay blueprint (or lack thereof) of Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused (which I’m almost positive was hugely influenced by this), it’s a raucous little celebration of music and mayhem without a single lead character or central storyline. Every person is important to the kaleidoscope of a story, from Ronee Blakely’s troubled angel starlet to Jeff Goldblum’s early zany career tricycle riding cameo. It’s less of a narrative with forward surging momentum than it is a big old sequinned wheel of fortune you spent n at your leisure, each stop containing some story or vignette revolving around country music, be it sad, joyous, ironic or just plain peculiar. Henry Gibson, that oddball, plays an Emcee of sorts, Scott Glenn is the mysterious military private, the late Robert Doqui coaches a hapless wanna be songstress (Barbara Harris), Keith Carradine charms all the ladies as a suave guitar playing crooner stud, and the impossibly eclectic cast includes brilliant work from Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, Michael Murphy, Elliott Gould, Julie Christie, Keenan Wynn, Allen Garfield, Geraldine Chaplin, Karen Black and an adorable Shelley Duvall. There’s something thoroughly lifelike about a sprawling story like this, as were treated to moments, episodes and unplanned exchanges between people as opposed to a contained, streamlined narrative. Things happen, and before we’ve had a chance to process it, were whisked away to the next page of the book like roulette, and every story in the film is a gem, not too mention the music and sly political facets too. A classic, get the criterion release if you can.  

-Nate Hill