"Altman" (Epix, Wednesday). Ron Mann, the director of the documentaries "Twist" and "Comic Book Confidential," has made a movie about Robert Altman. There is no American director working in my lifetime whose work has meant more to me than Altman, and not just the big, accepted successes like "MASH," "The Player" and "Gosford Park," but also "Brewster McCloud, "Buffalo Bill and the Indians" and "Prêt-à-Porter" and "A Prairie Home Companion," films full of life and a love for humankind in its sometimes horrifying, but always wonderful, variety. Ten years ago, on the occasion of an election-year rebroadcast of his groundbreaking, life-meets-art mockumentary HBO series "Tanner '88," I wrote of him, "In spite of the occasional unexpected crossover hit, Altman is the least accommodating of American filmmakers, with an abiding disinterest in popular notions of clarity and narrative, image and sound. Instead, with his long lenses and overlapping dialog, he makes little symphonies of chaos, teeming with incident -- the film equivalent of a Brueghel painting." That is, his work was lifelike, and made in the service of life; endings were almost incidental -- something new may be starting at the right of the frame while something old is concluding at the left.
Altman learned the language and practice of cinema not in film school or Hollywood, but making industrial films in Kansas City, which led to a successful career in television; he was already 45 when "MASH" won the Palme D'Or at Cannes, sold a lot of tickets and made him, for the moment, bankable. Mann's film is not an attempt to wring juice from the life, or to make the work the secret autobiography of the person, but to celebrate the man and the maker, in body and spirit, and to trace the literal ins and outs of his filmmaking career. (Altman was in, he was out, he was in, out, in, out, and back and forth across the decades.) He hits all the bases, if at times only barely touching the bag.
The famous talking heads who appear -- including Robin Williams, Lil Tomlin, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman, James Caan and Paul Thomas Anderson -- offer only their brief definitions of "Altmanesque," the effect of which is a little precious (and not at all Altmanesque). But their appearance does add the weight of celebrity endorsement. Much of the story is carried by the late director's own voice, lifted from this interview and that; for all the apparent looseness in his process, he knew what he was doing, and why. Widow Kathryn Reed Altman and various Altman children take over the narration when necessary, and give such outside perspective as the film offers. There is a wealth of home-movie and behind-the-scenes footage, and if the Altman who emerges is less detailed or dark than that of Mitchell Zuckoff's "Robert Altman: The Oral Biography," it is one more palpably lively and alive.
Masterpiece Mystery: "Dead Man's Folly" (PBS, Sunday). David Suchet is not the only man to have played Agatha Christie's first detective, the punctilious Hercule Poirot; Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney, Ian Holm and Tony Randall have had a go, among others. But he is certainly the person to have played him the most, the longest -- since 1989 -- and, not only by dint of defining ownership, the best. America this summer is seeing Suchet's final Poirot films -- you can't call them episodes, really -- which have already aired in the U.K.; every novel and story left to adapt has now been adapted. It is hard, for the loyal follower, not to feel choked up, and a little dreadful, in anticipation of the end. This week "Masterpiece Mystery" airs "Dead Man's Folly," which reunites the Belgian sleuth with Zoë Wannamaker's Ariadne Oliver, a crime novelist not unlike the woman who invented her, in the classic setting of a country house, under whose roof a classic cast of incompatible characters are gathered. (Oliver, commissioned to invent a "murder" for a game to be played at a fair, suspects that a real one will be committed and hopes Poirot might prevent it.) The following three, and final, films will premiere online via Acorn TV, then cycle on to public television in November, when the last season will also be released on video.
"Manly" and "Chainsaw Richard" (Cartoon Hangover). Cartoon Hangover, the Frederator Studios-run, YouTube-based online network that's home to "Bravest Warriors," runs a showcase of "shorts" (pilots, really), along the lines of honcho Fred Seibert's Nickelodeon series "Oh Yeah! Cartoons" and "Random! Cartoons." ("Doctor Lollipop," of which I wrote here, was one of these, as were "Dead End" and "Bee and Puppycat," both of which I wrote about here.) The great thing about these programs is the variety of voices; the sad thing is that not every short will become a series. Still, you have to learn to live with disappointment. Or that's what they tell me. And then have to tell me again.
Two new Hangover shorts have recently been posted. Each has a somewhat pensive, leisurely air, in the influential "Adventure Time" mode. In the psychedelic and melancholy "Manly," created by brothers Jesse and Justin Moynihan, the daughter of the Emperor God of the Universe -- named Manly, because he wanted a boy -- works as a kind of enforcer for her father. "You know this is my thing, right," she tells Nimbus, the Jiminy Cricket figure at her shoulder, "doing nasty stuff for Dad, so I can be like Dad, you know, great." ("How about being a super-good poet, or a badass drawer, like you are?" Nimbus asks. She has just left in literal pieces the army of a "rival god planet thing" called Eyes No Eyes.) While the performances adopt the ironic "Oh hey man" deadpan tone of much current comedy, and cartooning, there is something felt and even spiritual here. The characters become quickly compelling; you can sense transition just around the corner. You want to know them better.
The palette is unusually acidic, in the hot and stinging sense.
In "Chainsaw Richard," from Christopher Reineman (of the Web comic "Feel Afraid"), Ramses (a little boy) and his pal Tiny Ghost (a tiny ghost, in a town casually full of ghosts), can't afford to see the movie from which this cartoon takes its name. So they sneak in, Ramses with more difficulty than his incorporeal friend, through an air vent full of deadly traps and challenges. Ramses is a little reminiscent of Danny on "Bravest Warriors," but with googly eyes, but the resemblance ends there; the production as a whole has the painterly feel of a Little Golden Book. Unlike "Manly," "Chainsaw Richard" reaches the end of its story arc, with a little O. Henry twist, and stands alone quite nicely. But, again, I wouldn't mind seeing more of it.
"The Killing." (Netflix). The fourth and final, six-episode season of the former AMC detective series comes produced by Netflix, the movie rental/streaming service, which last year performed a similar operation on "Arrested Development." (It had a hand in making possible the third season of "The Killing," as well.) I haven't watched a minute of it yet, but I have watched all the previous minutes, and the hours they made, and though I could point out too obvious a thing here or an improbability there -- and though the series, which entranced and alienated viewers in equal measures -- "The Killing" always seemed to me to know what it was about, to have a firm grip on its characters and (too slow for some) pace and rain-soaked, Northwest-noir tone. As in "True Detective," but as is the case with most such shows, the story that matters in the end is the one taking place between the partners: Mireille Enos as Linden, setting a style for damaged, driven female sleuths, and Joel Kinnaman, as Holder, a living Shaggy, if Shaggy had actually done drugs. And we are grateful for this last act/extended coda not because we want to see another crime solved, or even to learn what price, if any, Linden will pay for the execution of her former partner/lover (the villain of S3), but because we need to know whether Linder-Holden will be all right, or won't, in the end.
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