Monday, February 23, 2009

Shitty Movies By Great Directors, Episode 3: Robert Zemeckis's "What Lies Beneath"

Robert Zemeckis's body of work represents just about the pinnacle of mainstream filmmaking. This is a guy who has been cranking out big, crowd-pleasing, special effects filled, product placement friendly, summer event blockbuster-y type movies for a good 25 years now. You could almost dismiss Zemeckis as a George Lucas style businessman whose artistic credibility takes a backseat to his business sense. Except Zemeckis is in the rare category of filmmaker, along with Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, where his obvious genius for the medium transcends his films' mainstream trappings. It doesn't matter whether his movies are mainstream or avant-garde, this is a man who simply understands film better than the vast majority of directors. And like Spielberg and Cameron, he knows how to sneak his heart and soul into seemingly shallow material.

It's no secret to anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes in conversation with me that Back to the Future is my favorite movie of all time. This is both because I think it is a great film, and for personal reasons that have only a little to do with the film itself. Which I suspect might be true of most peoples' favorite movie. BTTF is one of those movies that I saw when I was so young that I don't even have a sense of ever seeing it for the first time. It's like I was born having seen it, it was always a part of my life. For me, no other movie so perfectly represents the joy I felt watching movies as a child. As I've gotten older, I've become savvier about film, I understand the craft a little more. I can analyze them. When you're a kid, you don't understand any of that, the movie just sort of happens to you and it makes you feel a certain way and you're not sure why. I've analyzed BTTF enough to understand the craft of it more, but it still inspires those magical feelings from my childhood every time I watch it.

None of Zemeckis's other films could ever mean as much to me, but that doesn't that he hasn't turned out a lot of great ones. Romancing the Stone is probably the best Indiana Jones knockoff anyone has ever made. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not only a triumph on a technical level, but it also one of the most delightful films I've ever seen, on top of being the weirdest and most memorable modern take on film noir. (Yeah, you heard me, Sin City. You ain't got shit on Roger Rabbit). I know a lot of people seem to be down on Forrest Gump, but I can't think of a lot of other movies that magical. Also magical and captivating is The Polar Express, enough so to melt this bitter, Christmas-hating atheist's cold black heart.

That one marked Zemeckis's first foray into motion-capture animation, which seems to be the style he's sticking with for now. I'd be a liar if I said I didn't want him to go back to doing live action movies at some point. Still, the style has untethered his visual imagination from the practicalities of reality, and if that yields a movie as insanely over the top and violent as Beowulf, I'm not going to complain.

Back to the Future 2 & 3 could never match the magic of the original, those boots are just too big to fill. As a result, I think I've underappreciated them in the past. Part 2 especially is one of the most clever sequels ever made. The third one maybe gets a little bogged down in parodying westerns, but still is light years better than a supposed classic blockbuster like fucking Iron Man. (But that is a rant for another day. I'm seriously considering going back and watching that again to pinpoint exactly what I found so underwhelming about it.) I tend to forget about Contact when I think of Zemeckis's films, which is weird because it's one of his best, and in a lot of ways is the best example of his strengths. It's a big special-effects filled spectacle that also works as an earnest and touching attempt to address the religion vs. science debate. Even a relative disappointment of Zemeckis's, like Cast Away, showcases a lot of great filmmaking, strong acting and is in large parts very entertaining.

And actually, What Lies Beneath isn't so different. It has a lot of promise, a handful of well-constructed set pieces and a strong cast. A lot of what I'm about to bitch about is going to be similar to my complaints against The Fog... that the premise and the cliched ghost story do more to sabotage the film than anything else.

I was a little worried going back to rewatch this one for my blog that it was going to turn out to be better than I remembered. (I was "worried" that a movie would turn out to be good? God that sounds cynical). I was talking to my friend Patrick, and he reminded me that a big reason this movie felt so disappointing when it was first released was because of its awful, absurd ad campaign that gave away all the major plot points and twists. The commercials were brazen spoilers, and not just because they gave away that Harrison Ford turns out to be the bad guy (oops, spoiler, hope you hadn't been planning on seeing this one). Perhaps even worse is that the movie was marketed as supernatural thriller, even though the first 30 or 40 minutes of the movie goes to great pains to try to seem like a riff on Rear Window. It only to slowly reveals itself as a ghost movie. Watching that first act back when this originally came out was painfully boring, knowing already it was all just a red herring. What should have been a neat act of misdirection was made tedious by the film's shitty advertising.

Any ways, what I wasn't really expecting is that it turns out that What Lies Beneath is even worse than I remembered, and that the "boring" first act was actually the best part of the film.

The movie opens with the credits appearing over an ominous body of water. This is the movie's central metaphor, you see, because it's like "what lies beneath" the water? Eventually it turns out it is the corpse of a woman that Harrison Ford killed whose ghost ends up haunting his wife. But also it's like "what lies beneath" Harrison Ford's outward personality, because his wife thinks he's a good guy but he is really an amoral asshole willing to kill to protect his career and upper-class lifestyle. See, I got that shit, it's like a double meaning or whatever. Pretty deep (get it? that's a water pun I'm making).

The set up to the film is actually pretty good. Michelle Pfieffer and Harrison Ford play a middle aged married couple whose daughter has just left for college. There's a sweet scene where they drop the daughter off at her dorm and Pfieffer manages to keep from crying until after they start walking away. Soon, she starts experiencing some empty-nest syndrome stuff being stuck alone in their big house all day. She's bored and depressed, and starts to suspect something weird is going on with their neighbors. But is it for real, or is it just her restless, over-active imagination?

If the rest of What Lies Beneath was like the first 30 minutes, it could have been an excellent thriller. I like horror movies that exploit real life fears, and empty-nest syndrome is a novel one to try. I don't think I've seen it done before. Most older audiences members will remember what it's like when their kids left home, and most everyone will remember leaving home for the first time. It's a scary and relatable experience that establishes Pfiefffer as a sympathetic heroine. The movie then builds up a nice Hitchcockian vibe, with strong themes of voyeurism.

One night Pfieffer and Ford hear the married couple next door engaged in a loud fight that morphs into an even louder bout of lovemaking. Ford goes to shut the window, but Pfieffer asks him to keep it open, so they can hear the neighbors fucking and they can fuck to it. Nice. But Pfieffer starts to become a little too interested in her neighbors, spying on them through their fence, becoming convinced that the husband is abusing the wife, and eventually that he has murdered her.

So we have all the makings of a great Rear Window-esque thriller, and then the movie throws all that out the (rear) window to become another tiresome ghost movie where a bunch of arbitrary spooky shit happens over and over again on a long, winding road to an arbitrary ending. Only worse.

So there's a female ghost haunting their house, which Pfieffer initially thinks is malevolent but of course the ghost is only really trying to pass along a message about the fact that Harrison Ford is evil. I don't mean to repeat everything I said about The Fog, but I hate this kind of shit because it's so frivolous. The ghost has all sorts of magical powers that it utilizes inconsistently and ineffectively. I'm not going to bother listing it all here, but there is one egregiously awful example that I must share. At one point, during a bout of arbitrary spookiness, the ghost types her own initials into Pfieffer's computer, over and over again. Okay, so she's trying to tell Pfeiffer who she is. I get that, but if she can manipulate the computer, then why doesn't she just type out her full name? Or better yet why doesn't she just explain the plot of the film? That kind of crap frustrates me to no end.

Also, I hate in these movies when it turns out that the ghost is actually good. Because then it's like... what am I supposed to be scared of? It's the kind of twist that makes the rest of the movie seem boring in retrospect. Why would I ever want to rewatch it?

Zemeckis's considerable talents are still on display. I've always liked his knack for complicated, showy camera moves and shots that are so flawlessly executed that you don't immediately realize how complex they are. There's a pretty good one here, a scene done in one long shot where Pfieffer has a supernatural encounter in the bathroom that seemlessly incorporates a lot of special effects. I will also credit Zemeckis with a great set piece near the end of the film. After Pfieffer discovers Ford to be a killer, he paralyzes her with a drug and puts her into a bath tub, which slowly fills up with water. Her attempt to escape while barely being able to move her toes is the film's high point.

The problem is more with the screenplay, and Zemeckis's mistaken conviction that its silly story can supply serious thrills. In addition to all the frustratingly stupid arbitrary shit typical of this genre, there are a lot of wrongheaded ideas for scary scenes. Like when Pfieffer and her friend attempt to contact the ghost using a Ouiji board, and it's played for suspense. I'm sorry guys, you expect me to take a Ouiji board, which can be bought at fucking Toys R Us, seriously? You might as well build a suspense sequence around a magic 8-ball.

Most embarrassing though is the finale, a ludicrously convoluted chase presented with a straight face. It's a major set piece, a high speed chase where a car, a boat, a bridge, a fist fight, a lake and an unearthed corpse all slam together with clockwork timing, something appropriate for a Buster Keaton movie, but not so much for a serious horror/thriller. Zemeckis has done scenes like this to great effect in the Back to the Future movies, Beowulf, Used Cars and Roger Rabbit, the difference being that those are more light-hearted, silly, fun movies. This kind of sequence is Zemeckis's bread and butter, in the right context, but is so weirdly out of place in What Lies Beneath as to reach levels of accidental hilarity usually reserved for Uwe Boll. And the fact that Zemeckis's talent is evident throughout the scene makes it even worse. It's like a math genius developing a formula that makes searching for child porn on the internet faster and easier.

I'm convinced that with a good screenplay, Zemeckis could make a great horror film. He has an innate understanding of suspense, setup, payoff and pacing. I love horror movies, so to me it's a god damned shame how this is probably the only Zemeckis horror film we'll ever get. This isn't as shitty as the other two movies I've watched for this column, but it's way more frustrating in how you can sense the good movie that could have been. What it amounts to is an argument that strong filmmaking can't save a bad idea. Maybe there wasn't a lapse in Zemeckis's talent this time around, but there was certainly a major lapse in judgment.

NEXT UP: Steven Spielberg

Monday, February 9, 2009

Shitty Movies By Great Directors, Episode 2: John Carpenter's "The Fog"

Of all the directors I plan on covering in this series of posts, John Carpenter may very well be my favorite. No single director meant more to my childhood; when I was little, I thought that Escape From New York was the best movie ever made, and I was almost equally obsessed with Big Trouble in Little China, as well as (when I was finally brave enough to watch it) The Thing. And though my opinion on the hierarchy of his films has changed since those days, he's still a filmmaker I revere to an almost absurd degree.

Not only do I love John Carpenter more than most other people, I love him more than most other people who love John Carpenter love him. I'm the one human on this planet who thinks Ghosts of Mars is good, and I love Escape From L.A. Even the occasional movie of his that I don't much like, for instance Memoirs of an Invisible Man, I would never call a bad film, just an average one.

I think my point is that when I call The Fog a shitty movie, it means more than when other people say it.

Wait, let's not get negative quite yet. First, we should talk about what makes Carpenter a great director. For my money, he is the undisputed king of genre movies. Carpenter, it is well known, is a big fan of Howard Hawkes, and has a similar style of working in seemingly disreputable genres and elevating them with his technique. Let's acknowledge that Halloween and The Thing are two of the best, scariest horror movies ever made, movies that build tremendous anxiety through voyeurism and paranoia. Movies like Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China and They Live are some of the most entertaining, badass action and science fiction movies of the 80's. Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13 are low budget films that don't seem nearly as cheap as they are, because of the skill involved. Carpenter is not known for his warm humanism, but his one journey into sentimental territory, the sci-fi romance Starman, is surprisingly touching and magical.

The best thing about Carpenter, though, is the way he sneaks of lot of subversive elements into seemingly benign movies. The greatest example is, of course, They Live, an action/sci-fi movie about how all Republicans are secretly evil aliens that have taken over America and brainwashed the public into compliance. (I don't understand why nobody did a remake during the Bush administration). That's the most overt example, but there are plenty of others sprinkled throughout in his filmography. Like the pro-drug subtext in Ghosts of Mars and Big Trouble in Little China (and in They Live, come to think of it).

And it's not always political, sometimes he just likes to subvert the cliches and structure of genre movies. Like the way the hero of Escape From New York is basically a villain, but because he's badass and uncompromising he becomes our favorite character. Or the way the hero in Big Trouble is really a pussy and not very good at being a hero at all, seems more like a sidekick and is, in fact, frequently shown up by the character who is supposedly his sidekick. Or the way that Escape From L.A. is essentially a parody of the first film. And on and on.

The Fog opens with some Edgar Allen Poe quote about dreams within dreams, which in retrospect doesn't even fit the movie at all because there's no ambiguity or doubt about the nature of reality in the film. And then the movie cuts to some guy telling a bunch of kids a ghost story, which sets up the plot of The Fog. I guess it's to try to establish the tone for the movie as being like a campfire story, or something. Really though, it's just a framing device that doesn't pay off and doesn't add much to the rest of the film except to make it feel like an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?

I guess this was also the first sign that Carpenter wasn't going to slip anything subversive into this one. It's just an old-fashioned ghost story, with not much of a new twist on the material. A priest plays a major role, and I thought maybe Carpenter was going to use him to paint the church in a negative light like in Prince of Darkness or Vampires, but the priest is more or less a good guy. Not that I necessarily wanted Carpenter to mock the church, but I was expecting to find something interesting and came up empty-handed.

I'm not going to synopsize too much. The Fog is about a bunch of evil pirate ghosts who hide in the fog. They descend on some small coastal town, and a couple people get killed and then the good guys figure out how to stop the ghosts, the end. I'm not a big fan of ghost/haunting movies because 9 times out of 10, they are made up of a series of arbitrary scares that don't make sense. There are never any clear rules, the ghosts can always do whatever they want, whenever they want. The Fog is a severe offender in this regard.

In the beginning of the movie, there is a montage of different locations all around town, and car alarms all start randomly going off and a gas pump starts leaking and a bunch of random other shit. I guess in real life, if that really happened, it might be kinda scary. In a movie, it's fucking boring. And it gets worse. Throughout the movie, random "spooky" shit keeps happening, like spontaneously generated water and strange noises, I guess caused by the ghosts, but I have no idea why they are doing it. When the ghosts show up, it makes even less sense. They apparently regain human form and hide in the fog (which they control) and then they knock on peoples' doors (they are polite?) and when the door opens they attack the people inside with blades. I didn't know that apparitions needed weapons. And I don't know where they got the weapons. I guess knives have souls too. Ghost knives, yeah.

A good prototypical scene in the movie is one where a character is being stalked by a ghost. Suddenly, a clock breaks open from ghost magic or whatever and then the ghost disappears. Scared off by his own ghost-trick? I don't know, it's just arbitrary nonsense.

Halloween and The Thing are not realistic movies by any stretch of the imagination but they at least establish some ground rules and set up their villains as a credible threat. I understand what I'm supposed to be afraid of. In The Fog and movies like it, the bad guys are more or less God because they can do anything. Only they're some sort of God with short term memory loss where He only sometimes remembers that He's omnipotent and can alter reality and the rest of the time He stabs people with knives.

There's something else wrong with that montage of the town I mentioned before. It serves no purpose. I assumed at the time that it was establishing some key locations for the film, but then I don't think see most of them ever again. It's actually very similar to the ending montage from Halloween in its construction, only it lacks a real goal. The ending of Halloween is brilliant because we are shown a series of shots of different places from throughout the movie, and we realize that the killer could be anywhere. Here, at the beginning of The Fog, it's just a series of slightly atmospheric but mostly pointless shots of places we won't see again.

Back tracking a bit here, I've made it clear the premise doesn't work for me at all, but there are other reasons why I think the film fails to be scary in the way Carpenter's best horror movies are. Most notably is the lack of any inspired set pieces. There's nothing comparable to Laurie locking herself in the closet in Halloween, or the blood-test scene in The Thing, or the diner scene in In the Mouth of Madness. The scenes passing for scary in The Fog are repetitive and uninteresting; the ghosts knock on a door, then come in and stab someone. The best scene involves a kid trying to escape out a window while ghosts try hack down his door Shining-style... but I don't understand why the ghosts are trying to break down his door when they should be able to teleport into his room.

Also, I have to gripe about the characters. I said before that Carpenter is not known for his warm humanism, but you usually at least give a shit about his characters and don't want to see them die. The Fog has a good cast, but it's overcrowded with about 7 or 8 major characters who aren't very interesting and aren't given much to do. It feels more like a bad slasher movie where everyone is just murder fodder, except that most of the characters don't get killed in The Fog. They each get one set piece to be involved in and don't do much else the rest of the time. From what I read, Carpenter did some considerable reshoots on The Fog, so this may explain the overstuffed cast.

And it may explain the overstuffed plot, for that matter. The premise of The Fog is basic enough (murderous pirate ghosts kill townspeople) but Carpenter keeps throwing in endless subplots and backstory that don't do much to add to the atmosphere or build any more suspense. I don't really care about the ghosts other than the fact that they want to kill everyone, but the movie keeps stopping for exposition. I tend to be of the belief that horror movies work best when the plots are simplified, but if you are going to make one with a more complex plot, make sure the plot contains a lot of creepy and disturbing ideas (as Carpenter successfully did in The Thing, In the Mouth of Madness and Prince of Darkness).

In most his other horror movies, Carpenter is brilliant at crafting creepy, ambiguous endings that leave you disturbed long after the movie has ended. I already mentioned Halloween's. The Thing and Prince of Darkness also have classic endings, and In the Mouth of Madness has a kind of humorous take on this kind of ending. So that makes it an extra shame how witless the end of The Fog is. The priest figures out that the ghosts want the gold that was stolen from them long ago blah blah blah backstory, and the ghosts take the gold and then they leave. Everything goes back to normal, happy ending yadda yadda. In the final shots of the film, the ghosts reappear and kill the priest in a silly BOO! scare.

This is the kind of silly generic bullshit that should show up in Halloween: Resurrection, not in a film by the guy who directed the original Halloween.

Okay, let me be a little positive. This movie is not a disaster like Robert Altman's Quintet was. And Carpetner's talent is sometimes apparent, even if the movie is a dud. It's shitty, yes, but I'm only being so hard on it because of my esteem for the director. The Fog has a better than average cast for a movie of it's ilk, some entertaining special effects, some nice cinematography, and a few so-bad-it's-good moments. By far my favorite part of the film is a scene where one of the main characters is being bothered by her annoying son. The kid asks if he can have "a stomach pounder and a coke," which so mystified my girlfriend and I that we had to Google "stomach pounder" right away. Turns out that no one knows what the fuck it means. I would have guessed that it's a burger or something, but the mom tells him he has to eat his lunch first, so it kind of rules that out unless the kid is a bigger fatass than I remember. I guess it must be some sort of junk food but it doesn't really sound like it. It sounds more like Carpenter was trying to write something he thought a kid would say and failed in a confusing but comical manner.

Thing is, I don't want accidental comedy in a John Carpenter movie. I want real comedy and real scares, and I want it to be a good fucking movie. Maybe if Steve Miner or someone like that made this, I would give it a pass. I wouldn't like it, but I wouldn't have strong feelings against it either. I do have strong feelings against The Fog, and I'm the guy who thinks Village of the Damned isn't that bad.

Next Time:

Robert Zemeckis

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Shitty Movies By Great Directors, Episode 1: Robert Altman's "Quintet"

Ever since my little experiment of blogging every time I watched a movie ended, this blog has been in serious danger of dying out. I knew that one way to inspire me to keep going would be to think up some sort of gimmick or hook for a regular series of posts. So I had this idea where I would watch the worst movies by some of my favorite directors and write about them. It seems worth trying to figure out why a great director might turn out a pile of shit from time to time... try to analyze what it is about their films that usually works, and why it didn't happen this time.

I have set a few ground rules for myself. The movie can't be a good or mediocre movie that pales in comparison to the rest of the director's work; it has to be legitimately bad. And early movies by a director, especially first movies and low budget movies, shouldn't be considered, it wouldn't be fair. A shitty movie should only count once the director had already established himself as a great filmmaker. We shouldn't penalize them for making crap when they were a rookie.

Some of the movies I have on my list are films I've already seen in the past and can vouch for as sucking, but I figured I'd start by trying a film I hadn't seen before: Robert Altman's universally derided Quintet. Altman made, oh, I'd say about 80 bajillion movies in his nearly 40 year career, so when I tell you that Quintet is one of his only movies with nearly a undisputed reputation for sucking ass, that's saying something both about the quality of his filmography and of the unique terribleness of Quintet. Maybe O.C. and Stiggs comes close in reputation, but it's too silly and inconsequential to generate much ire.

Altman, as I've pointed out on my blog before, is the kind of director where I don't necessarily have a lot of favorite individual films of his. It's his filmography as a whole that means a lot to me. Taken individually, he made some excellent movies. Taken together, he created a large body of work with a consistent style and point-of-view that was powerful and unique and had a lot to say about life and human nature. What I'm saying is, Nashville is a great movie, but it's even better when you've seen Short Cuts and California Split and Images and a bunch of other Altman movies.

Altman was a genius at making movies that, while not realistic per se, uncannily captured the messiness of normal life. He liked large casts and tended to downplay plot in favor of character. He's famous, of course, for the overlapping dialogue in his films... instead of everyone talking in turn, he encouraged his actors to improvise and talk over each other, kinda like the way real people talk in real life. It's a style that can be a little off-putting at first, but is so full of life and seemingly spontaneous that it becomes very rewarding once you learn to "read" it.

As a result of this style, Altman's movies tend to improve upon multiple viewings... you catch a lot more detail, catch a lot of things you missed, come to a better understanding of all the characters and how their sometimes seemingly unrelated stories relate to each other. If I'm making Altman movies sound like a chore, I apologize. They are usually entertaining and very funny. Even some of his more difficult films, like Three Women, contain a lot of laughs.

Another thing Altman had a lot of fun with was working in established genres, and then subverting them to fit his own unique style. He's done western (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), detective movie (The Long Goodbye), war movie (MASH), shitty teen comedy (OC and Stiggs) and plenty more. Quintet marks Altman's foray into post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller territory. Which, the more I think about it, has to be about the worst pairing of director and genre possible.
Quintet is set at an unknown point in the future, where apparently a new ice age has set in, and most of mankind has died out. Earth is a pitiless, barren wasteland now, cold and dead, covered in snow, with packs of wild dogs stalking around everywhere munching on the corpses they come across. Paul Newman plays Essex, some dude wandering across the wasteland with his pregnant wife. They reach a large encampment of people in a broken down convention center or something, sort of a make-shift city, where Essex's brother lives, looking for a place to stay.

Turns out that everyone in this "city" is obsessed with a strange board game called Quintet. I'm not clear on the rules (more about that later) but the object of the game is to team up with players to "kill" the other players, and then alliances shift depending on who is dead and who is alive, until one player remains. Anyway, Essex and his wife are barely in town for 5 minutes when he goes for a walk, and someone throws a pipebomb into his brother's hovel, killing everyone inside. So Essex goes looking for revenge, and finds that the inhabitants of this city may be playing some sort of real life version of Quintet, where the object is to actually murder the other players. What ensues is a joyless, slow-paced film that is ugly to look at and hard to follow.

Where to begin... I'm looking over my notes I took while watching Quintet, and I wrote "unrelenting grimness only matched by how unconvincing it all is." This is a miserable fucking movie. The characters are a bunch of vapid, humorless hobos who have nothing to look forward to but their impending death. I understand that's the point, that Altman is trying to paint a bleak portrait of the future, but it was a bad idea for him to tackle this sort of material.

Altman's films are great for being full of life and energy, and for creating a lot of memorable characters that he cuts loose and lets bounce of each other. They have a hang-out kinda vibe. In Quintet, no one ever cracks a joke (and hardly anyone smiles), no one has any jobs our hobbies outside of Quintet, no one has any memorable character traits, and no one says any dialogue of interest. The movie even makes Paul Newman seem completely lacking in charm. Paul fucking Newman, the guy in Hud who played a drunken, violent, abusive, loudmouth asshole and you still kind of liked him.

I have to say, making Newman seem boring and unlikable is by far Quintet's most impressive accomplishment.

I don't object to Altman trying to make a dark and serious film, but this kind of misery isn't his bag. Three Women is another film of his that tries to make you anxious and unnerved, but Altman still allows the characters to be quirky individuals, and works in a lot of strange humor. Just a little bit of that vitality might have helped made Quintet less dreadfully boring.

Matching the film's lack of human warmth is its equally off-putting visual style. Altman's style is usually consistent from film to film, i.e. how he moves his camera, his frequent use of zooms and telephoto lenses. The level of polish/prettiness can vary, usually depending on what cinematographer he's working with. So it's not too surprising when one of his movies looks a little rougher around the edges. Hell, in a lot of his films, it actually works as an effective aesthetic quality. Quintet opens with a long scene of two figures walking across a frozen field, and I noticed that the frame was soft and blurry around all the edges. Sort of like how a dream sequence or fantasy will look in some movies. I wondered why he chose to film the opening like this, and if he was going to shoot all the outdoor scenes this way, perhaps in some sort of attempt to make it look more bleak outside. It only slowly started to sink in, as the movie progressed, that the entire film, every single damn shot, would be filmed with blurry edges. Just try to imagine an entire movie that looks like a dream sequence. It doesn't add any atmosphere, it only serves as a constant distraction.

That's not the only place where Altman fucks up bad. Since the movie is about murder and intrigue, there's a certain amount of action and hypothetical suspense figured in to the plot. Problem is, Altman can't direct an action scene to save his life. If you've seen some of his movies, you know that he has a fondness for filming things zoomed in from far away, with a relatively stable camera. There is a chase scene in Quintet, shot from afar, where nothing happens except Paul Newman follows a dude down some stairs. He doesn't even really run; I guess he walks faster than usual. Wow, be still my heart. Even worse, during a climactic battle near the end of Quintet, I'm pretty sure one dude trips, falls off a hill and dies. It's like Altman wasn't even trying to make it worth watching. (Or as I put it in my notes, "Altman isn't good at action... did one dude just trip and die?!" I could barely believe what I was seeing.)

None of this is helped by the fact that I couldn't make heads or tails of the plot. Most crucially, it's never clearly explained to the audience what the rules of Quintet are. There's all sorts of double-crosses and twists and turns that I couldn't fathom because I had no idea how the game worked. The surprises aren't surprising because you don't comprehend what they mean. I was convinced after seeing the movie that this must have been intentional, that Quintet was, by design of the filmmkaers, a game that made no sense. It helped underscore the film's bleak, nihilist tone in which death is cruel and meaningless. A character even says "death is arbitrary" at one point, maybe more than once. A game with rules the audience can't comprehend could be metaphor for life, or something. Then I watched the DVD making-of documentary, and it turns out that Altman and the cast and crew actually made up rules to the game and used to play it on set a lot for fun. Now I have no idea what the fuck to think.

There's also some sort of returning image/metaphor of a flying goose. And at the end Essex goes into a moral outrage at the guy running Quintet (but doesn't kill him, even though Essex already killed several other people). I have no idea what this movie is supposed to be about. Essex leaves the city and returns to the wasteland at the end... but what is he rejecting? Death? Society? The loss of hope? Just Quintet itself? I couldn't tell you.

Not only is this truly a shitty movie by a great director, it doesn't even seem recognizable as the work of a talented filmmaker. It's not a movie that seems brilliant but misguided. It's not the work of an artist compromised by a studio. It is just a thoroughly awful movie. Great directors make bad movies some times, but usually you can still see the talent behind the camera. For example, Altman's crappy OC and Stiggs has an amusing subversiveness to it, because he was trying to criticize a genre of film he hated. If someone who had never seen an Altman film before watched Quintet, they would have no idea that he was capable of making great movies, and in fact would probably never want to see anything by him again.

A while back, my friend Patrick and I got extremely intoxicated and watched a Jean Claude Van Damme movie called Knock-Off. It contains a scene where Van Damme and Rob Schneider participate in a rickshaw race, filmed as an intense action scene, where Van Dame runs so hard his shoes explode and also at one point Schneider whips Van Damme in the ass with a living eel to make him run faster. I had to watch it again the next morning because I couldn't believe I had actually seen it. And that's what I felt watching Quintet: disbelief. I can't believe I'm watching Paul Newman wear some goofy oversized coat, while carrying his wife's corpse over to a river and dropping it in, while hungry dogs follow him around, in a movie set during a new ice age where people play some sort of board game where they kill each other. How did this movie ever get made?

NEXT UP: John Carpenter's The Fog