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TFF14 – California Split/The Homesman/Birdman

2014 September 5
by profwagstaff



Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by: Joseph Walsh

California Split is one of those great movies that got away. Everyone knows about MASH, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts…most of the classics that Robert Altman directed throughout his career. California Split, though, has fallen out of print and been basically forgotten.

It’s a real shame, too. This movie is amazing.

Charlie Waters and Bill Denny (Elliott Gould and George Segal) meet when they’re both playing poker at the same table and are accused of cheating together by a very large redneck. They get shitfaced and leave the casino together, ending up at Charlie’s place where he lives with Barbara and Susan (Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles), two prostitutes who both have a thing for the guys.

The two men are absolutely addicted to gambling. They have so much fun doing it, but they get in so much trouble with it. They’re lives look fun and horrifying all at the same time. Bill owes a lot of money, even though he has a very good job. Charlie is apparently unemployed, but he makes enough off of his gambling to get by.

But they’re also addicted to each other. As the film goes on, they get closer and closer. Bill can’t stand to be at work because it means that he’s not gambling with Charlie. Charlie constantly calls Bill and asks him to go out of town to gamble with him. These guys are basically in love with each other. They just can’t admit it. It might just be the best and truest love story that Altman ever told.

I’m really hoping that Criterion decides to pick this up and release it like they have with Short Cuts and Nashville. If they don’t, the only way to see this movie may be at festivals like Telluride. And that would be a shame. Everyone is at the height of their power here.


Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
Written by: Tommy Lee Jones/Kieran Fitzgerald/Wesley Oliver/Miles Hood Swarthout (uncredited)
Based on book by: Glendon Swarthout

Tommy Lee Jones is pretty much a national treasure at this point. His portrayals of stoic and principled men bring to mind a modern John Wayne, but with more range. (Love The Duke, but his range wasn’t as big as he was.)

The Homesman is his fourth directorial effort and, honestly, I’m still at a loss about it a few days after seeing it.

Jones plays George Briggs, a nearly insane man who is caught claim jumping. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is an unmarried woman who is going to escort three actually insane women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) from Nebraska to Ohio so that they can get some help. Mary and George meet and she decides that she needs help wrangling the women, the horses and the Indians of the area.

Mary has been seen as odd for the last 15 years because she has never married. At 31, she’s an old maid. George has just been odd. The two make for a crazy pair, but not really in a funny way.

Here’s my problem with this film: Inconsistency of character. George is crazy. He dances. He sings. He does crazy things. Except when he suddenly becomes Call from Lonesome Dove. Mary is a strong, independent woman who doesn’t really need a man, except when she falls apart because she doesn’t have a man. Then something happens that is completely out of character for Mary and actually made me rethink the entire movie. And not in a good way.

The other problem was the casual racism. I realize that people were racist against Native Americans back then. (And they still are, sadly.) But did we really need a scene where George sends a horse away to lure the Indians away…and they follow the horse like a dog follows a bone? Then he tells Mary that they’re going to eat the horse. You know, instead of what they would actually do, which is catch it and use it as a horse.

Other than that, I liked the story. The acting was great (especially Jones). It was pretty well written. I just expected more from Jones and Swank.

BIRDMAN (2014)

Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Written by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu/Nicolas Glacobone/Alexander Dinelaris/Armando Bo

Michael Keaton has been a little AWOL for the last 15 years or so. I mean, he’s been around…a little. Mostly voice work. Since his role in The Other Guys, though, he’s been showing up more and more.

Birdman is his first starring vehicle in years. And, to my mind, it’s long overdue.

Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed up actor who is best known for his string of superhero movies in the 90s. He still gets recognized for his Birdman films, but he’s tired of that. He wants to be known as a real actor! His latest endeavor is a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. Days before the previews, he snags Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as the other man of the story. Unfortunately, even though Mike is a phenomenal actor, he’s a horrible human being. He brings out the worst in Riggan, who also has his major flaws.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has made some incredibly well-reviewed movies, but I haven’t been able to really catch onto any of his films until now. Amores Perros was one third great, one third good and one third terrible. Babel was a bit overwrought. 21 Grams was great, but I probably never need to see it again. Birdman, however, very well could be infinitely watchable. I can imagine that there will be things that we didn’t notice on first viewing. It helps that Keaton and Norton give amazing performances while their supporting cast (including Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Zach Galifianakis) all shine.

But what makes this so good is the absolute reality of the film. The characters aren’t particularly witty. They speak realistically and get flustered easily. They get frustrated with each other and often can’t articulate why. And, just to add to it all, there are very few cuts in the film. It’s very nearly one long, continuous take. The actors often had to do upwards of 15 pages of dialogue at a time with no edits to hide fuckups.

Birdman may have been my favorite film of the festival. One of the few that I would buy. California Split and Life Itself might be the other two.

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