Friday, November 20, 2015

CARMEN FROM KAWACHI (1966) - Seijun Suzuki

Despite his reputation as a director of "crazy yakuza movies," Suzuki also turned out quite a few women-centered pictures during his tenure at Nikkatsu. Story of a Prostitute, Gate of Flesh and then Pistol Opera towards the end of his career, basically a remake of Branded to Kill with a female assassin in the Jo Shishido role. Carmen from Kawachi is a slightly more whimsical addition to his ladies' canon, treading into modern rom-com and musical realms at points before turning darker towards the end.

Carmen is a country girl who moves to the city to escape her grim life (mom sleeps around, dad's an ineffectual drunk, uncle's a perv), becoming first a "hostess" at an Osaka gentlemen's club then a singer then a model then a businessman's wife and, eventually, a rich widow of said dead businessman. She plows through a series of deadbeat dudes-- some old, some young, some poor, some loaded -- but generally keeps her spirits about her, even while fending off the humorously explicit advances of her predatory lesbian boss, maintaining a sturdy platonic relationship with her eccentric gay painter BFF (pictured above). Blink for a second, and you may think you're watching a black and white 1960s Japanese version of Will and Grace. For its time, Carmen is more progressive than one might suspect.

This being Suzuki though, the cinematography is much jazzier than any three-camera sit-com. Canted angles, scenes shot through see-through artworks, repeated use of a fish eye lens. Things get more serious when Carmen returns to Kawachi and the film's m.o. veers from romance to revenge (that pervy uncle again) during a spectacularly photographed waterfall scene. Somehow Suzuki manages to tap dance effortlessly across these wildly dissonant genres, spring load his otherwise buoyant B-movie comedy with a surprise emotional wallop of a climax. Legend has it this trait (and this film specifically) got him a stern warning to "play it straight from now on" from the Nikkatsu studio brass. To which Suzuki responded with arguably his greatest stylistic F-U, Tokyo Drifter, the follow-up to Carmen. You've really got to hand it to the man.

Friday, November 13, 2015

EIGHT HOURS OF FEAR (1957) - Seijun Suzuki

8 Hours of Fear = 80 surprisingly entertaining minutes! This is the earliest Suzuki I've seen, before the man was even named "Seijun" (opening credits bill him by his birth name "Seitaro Suzuki"). A cast of diverse characters embark on a perilous bus journey (the railroad is out of commission, it seems) through known gangster territory. Think Stagecoach with yakuzas instead of attacking Apaches or Lifeboat with bumpy mountain roads in place of the high seas. Or, if you're going to get all modern about it, maybe a slightly slower Speed (at 60mph).

Despite its age, this film is fast-paced and character rich, like a dress rehearsal for all the "types" to come in Suzuki's later films. The passenger list on this bus to potential oblivion includes: The Student Bound to Honor, The Prostitute in Hiding, The Fussy Businessman, The Spoiled Actress, The War Veteran who's also a Wife Murderer and, of course, The Yakuza who's a low-down dirty yakuza. Along the way, we get crumbling old bridges, bear traps used to snare humans, bags of stolen money and a crying baby in mortal danger with a gun repeatedly placed to its temple. What's not to love?

The dialogue is spirited and some of the interactions between passengers quite racy for its time. If this movie were made in America the same year rather than at the bottom of a double bill in Japan, I'm convinced it would be a classic playing every other month on TCM.

PASSPORT TO DARKNESS (1959) - Seijun Suzuki

Think D.O.A. without the poisoning or countdown to imminent demise. Think Memento without all those pesky tattoos.

Passport to Darkness is a jazzy little Nikkatsu noir with style to burn, if not much in the way of fresh plot. A newly married trombone player loses his wife on the train during the honeymoon only to find her dead the next morning at the kitchen table after he comes home from an all night bender. Our pro bone player must turn amateur sleuth to piece together the events of the previous night to find out who offed his new bride. Guess who's about to enter the seedy Heroin Underworld. Surprise!

The best thing about Passport is probably the compositions. Stylish framings abound. At least there's something to look at while ignoring the boilerplate storyline. There are a few offbeat tidbits, however, perhaps off-color too. The Big Bad turns out to be a Frenchman. He also turns out to be gay, in a co-dependent relationship with the dead wife's strung-out brother. This being the late '50s (and late '50s Japan) it's probably no surprise that they don't end up together in a thriving civil union. But then this is also noir to its core. Does anyone ever really thrive?


"That's why I hate yakuza. You're all obsessed with the way you die!"

Call of Blood is Suzuki smack dab in his fertile, experimental period under the Nikkatsu banner, a year after the career invigorating Youth of the Beast and a few years before he really started ruffling studio feathers (and blowing film nerd minds) with Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. But, if the line above isn't enough indication, in Blood he already seems exhausted with the yakuza genre (he'd made a handful of gangster pics by this point) or, at least, intent on treating its honor-by-gunfire subject matter with something less than reverence.

But then calling this film a tried and true yakuza flick may be something of a misnomer. The two lead brothers are actually businessmen and only yakuza "by blood." Their gangster father made their mother promise on his assassination deathbed to raise them as normal tykes so as to escape the family curse. Instead, they go into the ad game ("Is there much difference?" you may ask), and the first 30 minutes plays more like a boardroom dramedy. One's a smooth operator and the other is kind of a screw up. They both have girlfriends they're reluctant to marry and generally avoid all armed conflict. Until their father's rival yakuza assassin shows up years later to apologize.

Even then, our two sibs do not immediately seek vengeance, and for a program actioner with "Blood" in the title it's quite a while before we see any of the red stuff. Call of Duty, this is not. The first hour of the film is relatively inert, focusing more on their rote personal relationships. But then older bro gets up to some shady business with the corporate accounts and soon enough that yakuza DNA springs to the fore. Before we know it, our two bros are strapped with gats, and there's an extended shootout in a field of reeds with Dad's old rival clan honcho, a pretty well choreographed shootout to boot. In case you're wondering, yes, at least one of these ad men brothers gets a properly dramatic, honorable yakuza death. My guess is this was much to Suzuki's protest.

Monday, November 09, 2015

CAPONE CRIES A LOT (1985) - Seijun Suzuki

Capone cries a lot...but I yawn a lot more. This oddball fish-out-of-water musical comedy made somewhere in the years between Suzuki's far superior Taisho Trilogy landed with a resounding thud for me, a series of loosely connected slapstick sketches about a 1930s naniwabushi singer from Japan seeking stardom in the U.S. He half-believes he's a samurai, fully believes Al Capone is President of the United States.

While there are some lovely period sets and a mise en scene bursting with candy-coated colors, the literally all-over-the-map story is a chore to follow. And with a longer than average run-time for a Suzuki movie (two hours plus), the playful surrealism that works in his leaner breakthrough yakuza films tends to stay overstay its welcome here. So do the American actors sprinkled throughout, who are uniformly terrible, not to mention the stabs at "Americana" along the way (rhythm and blues music, the Chicago mob, the KKK). These scenes are particularly tone deaf and wince-inducing. You can tell they were directed by a man "not of this land." And, no, I don't mean Lars Von Trier.

As with any Suzuki flick, however, there are bits of stylistic gold flecked throughout. You just have to dig a little deeper, stay a little longer to find them in Capone. Like the still below. Looks kinda nifty, don't it?

THE SLEEPING BEAST WITHIN (1960) - Seijun Suzuki

The Lincoln Center Film Society program billed this pulpy Father (May Not) Know Best crime story a "proto-Breaking Bad." That may be a bit of an overstatement, but, hey, with a director as criminally underappreciated as Suzuki, can you blame them for invoking Walter White to get some asses into seats?

Hiroyuki Nagato from O-Line again plays a reporter (much nicer, more principled this time) tasked by the daughter of a traveling businessman to help her find her father when he disappears soon after arriving from an overseas trip. As it so happens, Dad's fallen in with a heroin smuggling racket while away and is now indebted to assist them with their transportation operations. Like BB's Walter White, he started out a mild-mannered salary man who had enough of the quiet, desperate middle class life and decided to "go out with a bang" for his retirement. Unlike BB's Heisenberg, however, he does end up showing a shred of remorse for these decisions. He may not start his own Blue Meth empire exactly, but he does go out with a bang...or, at least, in a sizable house fire.

This is another of Suzuki's more straightforward flicks, though there's some handy-dandy experimentation with flashback super-impositions framed in the corners when a character is relating a story, sort of a classier riff on the everyday split-screen. Of the four Year 1960 Suzuki's I've seen (he made five that year according to Wikipedia), this may be my favorite of the bunch.

SMASHING THE O-LINE (1960) - Seijun Suzuki

Fifty years before Nightcrawler (and about a decade after Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole), Suzuki offered his own take on amoral crime reporters who will do just about anything to get a story, even if it means ratting out friends and lovers, manufacturing events from scratch. Hiroyuki Nagato plays Katari, a cold-blooded careerist newshound who's constantly stealing headlines from the slightly more principled Yuji Odaka, a fellow reporter aghast at the levels to which his rival scooper will sink. Katari combs the docks looking for drug deals, often getting there well before the cops (and leaving beforehand, too). He soon stumbles onto a drug smuggling ring that doubles in human trafficking. When he gets in too deep, Odaka has to put his qualms about Katiri's ethics aside to help him get out alive.

This is an early Seijun effort in the more straightforward potboiler mode. It's an enjoyable yarn with some snazzy, fluid handheld camerawork, but don't expect a lot of experimentation or innovation this early in his career. I feel about the same as O-Line as I did this one the same year.


Ah, Mr. Suzuki. Only you and your ill-timed Lincoln Center Retrospective could drag me back kicking and screaming to this stillborn blog, left for dead on the side of the road two months ago in September. You thought you'd lost me for good, deep into the bowels of Twitter, didn't you dear Cashiers readers? And I do mean bowels...oof, is it a sewer of chirps and tweets and retweets and white noise and endless promotional flatulence over there or what? Every page is an eyesore and all those ### and @@@s to contend with? Oy vey!!

But I digress. And that's what this temporary foray back into blogging will mostly be...a digression. I purchased tickets for seven hard-to-find Suzuki films I've never seen at Lincoln Center's "Action and Anarchy" retrospective this month, and weighing in on these flicks with only a 140 character limit just feels, well, kinda criminal. Therefore, I will be posting my mini-reviews of each one here on Cashiers, where I allow myself at least 5,000 characters and bloviating about obscure movies is much more welcome, the name of the game, in fact.

WARNING: Don't get too comfortable, folks. I still haven't quite decided the fate of this blog. Though I suspect this unforeseen Suzuki retro may set the tone for things to come...occasional bursts of review/commentary centered around a certain director or theme that appear sporadically and without warning, rather than the draining month-to-month thing I was doing before. Those days are still numbered, I'm afraid. You may even notice I've changed the banner head above to reflect as much (no longer "Every Month A New Theme, A New Employee").

As for that end of year Best/Worst list, it's still possible. I'm working on it, seeing as much new stuff as I can before the year ends. Patience, my tiny handful of semi-devoted readers. Patience...

Friday, September 11, 2015


WARNING: The above heading does not denote an espionage themed month on the way ("September Spies" anyone?) but the end of an era-- the ten years and five days that this humble film blog has been online. For after this posting, the movie theatre cash register that is Cashiers De Cinema is due to be counted out and closed for good. Or, at least, a very long time.

I'd planned to do this final post on September 6th, 2015, the exact 10 year anniversary, but as so often happens these days regular life got in the way. And then Labor Day. That was the plan all along (or for this past year), to turn my attentions away from this blog to other more important labors on Labor Day (I do love a good holiday theme). There are two nearly finished novels screaming for my undivided attention and closure by the end of 2015. Also, actual labor (no, I'm not pregnant). I'm on the hunt for a more rewarding jobby-job. By "rewarding" I mean creatively restorative and financially remunerative, unlike what Cashiers de Cinema has become...a time and energy suck, an occasionally therapeutic enterprise for myself and a mild diversion for a tiny handful of stalwart readers (hey, some dude in Germany f'ing loves me!). In short, I need to stop watching so many goddamn movies for absolutely goddamned free.

Some background for those new to the site (and who don't click away before they get to this part), a Cashiers Highlights Reel, if you will, before I go. This blog began as a dare, an impossible mission to watch a stockpile of films I had gathering dust on VHS while learning this new self-publishing technology they called BLOG. I gave myself the task of watching 120 of them between Labor Day 2005 and the end of that year. I came close, made it to 100 (that life thing getting in the way again). At the time, it wasn't called Cashiers De Cinema but simply linked to my name and my Yahoo! email address (now defunct). The entries/reviews were basically all text. The Cashiers concept came later in 2010 along with more visuals, monthly themes and employees, a slightly better banner head, even occasional GIFs. If you take a look at the right hand side under "Archive," you can see this blog's whole sketchy history in the parentheticals, the number of posts per year. It starts out strong in 2005, the year I made the dare, then goes humorously dormant for the next three before picking up steam again in 2009-10. What was I doing for those years of non-blogging? In the midst of moving from L.A. to D.C. and then to NYC. "Having a life," maybe. Also, one of those jobby-job things I mentioned. They do kinda tend to get in the way sometimes.

But, no matter how few the entries, each year I always managed to pony up a Year's Best/Worst List. Take a look at the right side Menu if you want to browse a few. And, no matter the year, it seemed I kept ADDING to my list of movies to see instead of knocking it down. What started out as a muddy-pictured VHS experiment eventually morphed into one of better resolution and proper aspect ratios on recordable DVDs. Then, in the last few years, to pristine digital copies consigned to USB. It turns out I'm an obsessive collector, an addict of sorts (sidebar: does this have something to do August's Abel theme?). By last count, I have in the neighborhood of 2,000 DVD movies at home in flipbooks, roughly 500 or so I still have yet to watch. So, as you can see, at the rate my addiction is going, this blog could easily continue forever. But that's simply not going to happen. I'm putting my foot down. My "hobby" has gotten out of control. I gotta get the Movie Monkey off my back. Or at least switch to binge-blogging TV. If you can believe it, I still have yet to see a single episode of The Sopranos.

So then what comes next for Cashiers? For starters, I'm going to leave this site up at least for the rest of the year until I decide what to do with it. I may eventually fold many of the reviews into another site to come or just leave it as is for interwebs posterity. It's possible I may come back to it sometime in the future with the occasional mini-marathons stretched out over longer periods of time. There are still TONS of directors I haven't gotten to (Ken Russell, Alex Cox, Bertrand Blier to name a few) and a bunch on the right hand side Directors menu that I would like to further investigate (Fulci, Deodato, Boetticher, etc.). Also, a lot of unexplored themes..."Cons and Capers," "Space Camp," "Dirty South/Slavery," "Holiday Horrors," and even the "September Spies" month I joked about before. One of the problems of operating a (free) blog with a different theme every month is there's just not enough viewing time to finish out filmographies before the month turns over. That, and the fact that I have to scrounge up a new photo of a movie character near a cash register every month. There aren't as many out there as you think. Look around. Seriously.

In addition to the monthly turnover, the particular format I've chosen, added to my dwindling enthusiasms about blogging over the last decade, has mostly prevented me from doing what I'd call more "deep dive" reviews. What started out with slightly more serious cineaste intentions has, because of the time constraints, devolved into something closer to quick thumbs up-thumbs down style capsule reviews, the type which I don't really enjoy reading myself. Less New York Times and more New York Post in other words, and I do apologize for that. "Too much snark and not enough smarts makes Jack a dull boy." It's true this blog's title is a playful stab at Cahiers du Cinema, the influential French magazine started by the likes of Godard, Bresson, Chabrol and Truffaut. It was never meant to take itself too seriously. But I would actually like to indulge in some more serious film criticism at some point, or least a more lengthy, personalized examination of certain favored directors mentioned so many times on this blog (Peckinpah, The Coens, Cronenberg, Kubrick, Lynch, Mann, DePalma, Tarantino). Beware, Dear Cashiers Readers: Someone out there may be working on a book-length "movies memoir."

And what about that end of year Best-Worst List anyway? I've already done ten of the suckers. Isn't that enough? Would you like my firstborn too? It's very possible one will pop up around December 31st, 2015, who knows. Though I'm cutting down my movie diet for the remainder of the year, I'm sure I'll catch a few more before year's end, films that I can't help but champion or excoriate in written form. And where else would they go but here? There's a few must-see's on my hit-list already...Sicario, Black Mass, Bridge of Spies, Spectre, Trumbo, Carol, Snowden. And then there's Hateful Eight, of course. And, OK, I'll admit it, I'm kind of excited for the new J.J. Abrams Star Wars, though I'm ten times more excited for the one following it in 2017 directed by Rian Johnson and starring Benicio. I'm banking on that one being the Empire Strikes Back of the new bunch. Or at least better than Phantom Menace.

But then who am I to criticize? If this site proves anything, it's that I see them all, the good and the bad movies. And I've been involved in the makings or almost-makings or complete non-makings of some good and bad ones myself. This blog was born out of heartache. A literal heartache (a Los Angeles relationship gone bad that I've mentioned repeatedly) but also the spoils of several disheartening years in Tinsel Town. Cashiers has been an attempt to keep one of those loves alive. I'm talking about my love of film, of course, not the aforementioned L.A. lady. "Lady Cinema," if you will. If you've clicked on this site purposely or accidentally sometime in the last decade, I hope this little goof of a blog has in some small way helped you keep your heart embers stoked for her, too.

Signing Off,
Matt Burch, "Head Cashier"

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

POPEYE (1980) - Robert Altman

Did you really think my very last review (at least, for a very long time) would be of a good film about a tortured artist (see previous entry)? Don't be "ridinkulis," as one particular spinach-chomping sailor might say. This blog is called Cashiers de Cinema, not too be confused with its stuffy French namesake Cahiers. OF COURSE, I'm going to end it with Robert Altman's biggest bomb, the one that easily could've ended his Hollywood career (and almost did).

I actually loved this movie when I was a wee Swee'Pea myself. I conned one of my parents into taking me to the theatre to see it when I was a tot. They loved musicals, and I loved Popeye the cartoon, so no harm, no foul. Watching it again last night, some 35 years later, I finally see what a gigantic mess it is and why it was such an offense to moviegoers at the time. Altman shoots almost everything in long shots, with overly busy people-packed frames, most of his dialogue lost in the busier audio mix. Other than some fine costuming, the film looks nothing like the comic book or animated cartoon from which it sprang. And for a movie rumored to be a musical, none of the songs are catchy, apart from Shelley Duvall's "He Needs Me." But I think that's only because I was remembering its superior use in Punch-Drunk Love. I found myself checking my the DVD clock repeatedly, waiting for the parts I knew I liked as a kid...the boxing match, the spinach-fueled fight with Bluto at the end. The action parts, basically.

None of the actors can be blamed here. Robin Williams does his best to inhabit an iconic caricature, despite his tone-deaf singing and the cumbersome prosthetic arms. Ray Walston as Poopdeck Pappy does even better. And could there be a more spot-on casting of "Olive Oyl" than Shelley Duvall then or now? And how about that Swee'Pea? What a little canned ham. That kid gets my vote for the most expressive baby ever put on film.

Nope, as much as I hate to admit it, the two-ton anchor of blame for this clunker rests squarely on Altman's shoulders. He's just not the right man for this lightweight, family friendly PG fare, much less musical fare. Altman pretty much admits to this at the very beginning of the film, when the cartoon Popeye bursts through the Paramount logo and says "I'm in the wrong picture! Must be one of Bluto's tricks!" Bluto, maybe. Producer Robert Evans, positively.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

VINCENT AND THEO (1990) - Robert Altman

As with any biopic of a famous personage, Altman can't resist but hit a few of the notable high points. Yes, we see Van Gogh slice off his ear. And, yep, we see him painting those well-known sunflowers. But that's only after we've seen him destroy an earlier version in the same sunflower field in a frothing rage. It's refreshing to realize that even geniuses sometimes need second or third drafts.

But the creation/art-making scenes in Vincent and Theo play second fiddle to the real meat of the picture, the relationship between the two brothers, basically two poles in the art vs. commerce tug-o-war and both of them losing miserably. Yes, Vincent was a "pure" artist, a genius, a romantic, but he was also a freeloader, a people user, a money-grubber obsessed with his own lack of success, one which played no small part in driving him "mad." Yes, Theo was a reluctant gallery shill of inferior paintings with a bad case of The Syph, but he was also a compassionate believer in true art, his manipulative brother's only viable lifeline, the only one who kept on giving when any reasonable person would have stopped. Watching the two brothers' dual downward spirals makes for a doubly troubling and affecting tragedy, and Tim Roth and Paul Rhys are both equally fantastic in their roles. We all know what happened to Vincent (the ear, the gunshot). But do nearly as many people know that Theo died in asylum, his syphilis finally getting the best of him?

Perhaps the most harrowing, haunting part of Altman's film is not its end but its footage of a Christie's auction in which one of Van Gogh's paintings steadily climbs in worth to a ludicrous multi-million dollar sum. Placed at the head of the movie in grainy, grungy video form, it plays not as a celebration, as it would in some other films, but a disturbing epitaph, an indictment of the business side of art. To be a "success," one must first die tragically. And when success finally comes (after the fact), it comes in gross overabundance. To be a pure artist might be beautiful. But to be a "famous artist" is to court the obscene.

ARIA - "Abaris ou les Boréades" segment (1987) -
Robert Altman

Altman's contribution to this compilation film of opera-inspired shorts trains the camera solely on the audience for the duration of a 1700's Rameau performance, an interesting if one-note experiment livened by the fact that the crowd is comprised entirely of lunatic asylum inmates. We watch the show play out on their disturbed faces as the camera swirls about the theatre. And that's about it.

Like most anthology flicks (Paris, Je Taime, etc.) Aria is a hit or miss affair depending on who's doing the directing. It's more hits than misses though with directors Nic Roeg, Franc Roddam and Ken Russell turning in visually sumptuous shorts and Julian Temple turning in a painfully obvious (though still amusing) segment with Buck Henry and Beverly D'Angelo.

Surprisingly, my favorite of the bunch was Jean-Luc Godard's, a director whose mostly pretentious, insufferable output post-'70s I've avoided like the plague. But this one has a sense of humor! His "Armide" is set entirely in a Parisian gym in which two women who look like beautiful, porcelain refugees from an Antonioni movie attempt to seduce a bunch of disinterested beefcake bodybuilders who look like ex-pats from Pain and Gain. A perfect marriage of conceptualism and carnality. Jean-Luc meets Michael Bay.

THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK (1969) - Robert Altman

Could this be the most serious movie about pot cookies ever made?

Sandy Dennis plays a bored socialite who invites the young mute drifter she meets in a nearby park to stay in her home during a rainstorm. The twist, of course, is that she's the unhinged one, a possessive, psychotic 30-year-old virgin ala Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion or a younger Kathy Bates in Misery. She develops such a fixation that she begins locking him in the guest room, goes so far as to procure a prostitute for him later on when he refuses to have sex.

The other smaller surprise is that our drifter is not really mute but an opportunistic counterculture ne'er-do-well using Dennis for her riches. We find out midway through he's got his own weird thang going with his hippie sister, who sends him back to Dennis's swank crib with hash-laced Tollhouse morsels just to see what happens.

What happens? Not much. Dennis' character is so loopy already the pot cookies don't seem to have much effect. What happens after that I won't spoil, though if you've seen Images or even 3 Women, Altman's other flicks about psychologically imbalanced ladies, you probably have a good idea. I'd put this one smack dab between those two...better than Images though not nearly as dense and well-photographed as 3 Women. Nonetheless, an interesting early Altman work.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

TANNER '88 (1988) - Robert Altman

Altman skewers the political campaign process nearly as well as he does Hollywood (The Player) and the military (M*A*S*H) in this 11 episode made-for-HBO series. It's a treat to see his trademark roving, zooming camera style and densely overlapping dialogue tracks applied to an '80s era video format (what is that? Beta? Beta SP?). It makes this earliest of mockumentaries feel even more doc-like than his 35mm versions (such as Nashville) done in a similar style. Michael Murphy is great as the blank slate faux Gary Hart candidate Tanner, but it's the side characters I kept coming back for...Matt Malloy as the campaign videographer with a tendency to hit "record" during extremely private moments, the tireless workhouse Pamela Reed as his seen-it-all campaign manager, Ilana Levine as Reed's ditzy, too-kindhearted-for-politics intern who eventually explodes during a "get out the vote" telephone blitz. I think I may have developed a heavy '80s crush on Levine's "Andrea Spinelli" during the course of those six hours. I dunno. Is that weird?

If you're an Altman loyalist (or a Reagan-era political junkie), Tanner '88 is essential viewing. If not (and you happen to have Hulu), you may want give one episode a whirl before committing to the full 11. Altman won an Emmy for "The Boiler Room" episode set during the Democratic National Convention, with Harry Anderson (Night Court) as a "super-delegate strategist." Most would probably say that's the best place to dip in. But the episode that gets my strongest vote is the one called "The Girlfriend Factor." Tanner gets accosted by a robot at an electronics convention asking him if he's ever smoked marijuana or used crack cocaine, which is of course hilarious, and then visits an inner city Detroit project to "hear" its real-life angry residents, which turns very sobering very fast. In that one episode (from robots to the PJs), we see the two extremes of what Tanner '88 does best-- mixing the real and the fake-- and what Altman did like no other-- seguing seamlessly between humor and tragedy.

BEYOND THERAPY (1987) - Robert Altman

This is first Altman movie I've seen that I'd describe as "willfully wacky." As it turns out, straight-up screwball filmed mostly in one location is not the best fit for skill set. Though the far superior Brewster McCloud certainly had its oddball moments and the underwhelming O.C. and Stiggs had its fair share of low-brow frat boy antics, Beyond Therapy plays way too much like bad French farce (Altman actually filmed it in Paris though it's set in Manhattan). It doesn't rise to the Brewster's Astrodome scaled heights. I blame the source material, Christopher Durang's play. The humor just feels dated...even for 1987.

Jeff Goldblum plays a bisexual Manhattanite who puts a personal ad in the paper and ends up on a date with the (seemingly) more straight-laced Julie Hagerty. Both are seeing therapists who (of course!) are more unstable than they are (Hagerty is sleeping with hers, Tom Conti). And then there's Goldblum's live-in lover, Christopher Guest, who's miffed that Goldblum's suddenly leaning toward the female end of the bi-curious spectrum. Before you can say flaming escargot, yes, there are guns firing in a French restaurant.

I would say the only reason to watch Beyond Therapy is to finish out your Altman filmography. But since I said that already in so many words with H.E.A.L.T.H, I'll say this it solely for Goldblum's extravagantly patterned shirts.

H.E.A.L.T.H. (1980) - Robert Altman

Robert Altman is the undisputed master of multi-character, panoramic cultural exposes (Nashville, M*A*S*H, The Player, Short Cuts), but in this movie it just feels like he's coasting on fumes and reputation, doing his old '70s shtick but less successfully at the head of a new decade. Watching H.E.A.L.T.H, you get a severe case of the been-there-done-that's. Even the "Exercise Your Right to Vote" song is used to better effect later in the '80s in the far superior Tanner.

Maybe it's the target of satire this time...a health convention in a Florida hotel. Perhaps it's too small a bulls-eye for his broad canvas approach. Though it's fun to see Carol Burnett in a slightly more serious role outside of The Carol Burnett Show, not to mention Henry Gibson in full drag fondling fruit (above), many of the jokes fall flat, especially a recurring one with Lauren Bacall having a palsy at inopportune moments that causes her arm to raise into the air lazy Hitler style. File this movie under: "For Altman Completists Only." It sorely needs a B-12 shot.