Film Review: Countdown (dir by Robert Altman)


 

Earlier tonight, on TCM, I watched the 1968 science fiction film, Countdown.

Who will be the first man to walk on the moon?  Will it be Chiz (Robert Duvall), who is a colonel in the Air Force and who has been training for years and who really should get the chance just because he has a really cool name like Chiz?  Or will it be Chiz’s best friend, Lee (James Caan)?  Lee may not have Chiz’s experience but he’s a scientist and selecting him would allow NASA to portray the mission of being one of peace as opposed to one of war.  Add to that, Lee has a full head of hair and he looks like a young James Caan, who was an undeniably handsome man back in his younger days!  I mean, seriously — who would you rather have as the face of the space program: Tom Hagen or Sonny Corleone?

Of course, it might not really matter who NASA picks because the Russians are determined to get to the moon as well.  And you know what that means!  If the Russians land on the moon first, they’ll turn it into a Socialist utopia and that’ll mean ugly architecture, bread lines, and a three-month wait for toilet paper.  The stakes have never been higher!

Countdown was made and released at the height of the space race, at a time when Americans really did feel that they were competing with the Russians to be the first to reach the moon.  (Of course later, it would be learned that the Russian space program actually managed to kill far more cosmonauts than it successfully sent into orbit.)  It came out a year before Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong became the first Earthling since Stanley Kubrick to ever step on the lunar surface.  As such, it’s interesting to see how Countdown imagines the experience of exploring the moon.  I won’t spoil who reaches the moon first but I will say that he moves remarkably quickly and with great ease for someone in a gravity-free environment.

Countdown is a good example of what I like to call a “time capsule” film.  Seen today, it’s kinda slow and a bit predictable.  For all the time that is spent on getting the astronauts ready to go into space, very little time is actually spent in orbit.  This is a very Earth-bound film.  And yet, if you’re a history nerd like me, it’s hard not to be a little bit fascinated by a movie like this.  In everything, from its fashions to its dialogue to its cultural outlook, this is very much a document of its time.  It may be a while until we have the technology necessary to travel through time.  Until then, watching a film like this might be as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing what the straight, non-Hippie crowd was doing in 1968.

If you’re a student of film history, Countdown is significant for being one of the first films to be directed by Robert Altman.  To be honest, if not for his name in the opening credits, you would probably never guess that Countdown was directed by one of America’s most influential and iconic directors.  Altman specialized in making film that were almost defiantly iconaclastic and there’s very little of that to be found in Countdown.  Admittedly, there are a few scenes that make use of overlapping dialogue and there’s a party scene that’s definitely Altmanesque.  However, the only reason I really noticed that party scene is because I was specifically looking for evidence of Altman’s style.  For the most part, the most identifiably Altmanesque element of Countdown is the casting of Michael Murphy in a small role.

The film is dominated by Robert Duvall and James Caan and, especially if you’re a fan of The Godfather, it’s undeniably fun to see these two acting opposite each other in something other than an epic gangster film.  (Duvall and Caan also acted together in The Rain People and The Killer Elite and were reportedly great friends off-camera as well.)  Duvall is especially good in Countdown, playing Chiz as a man torn between an innate sense of loyalty and his own competitive nature.  The scenes between Duvall and Caan have a charge to them that occasionally bring some much-needed life to this film.

In the end, Countdown is a fairly forgettable film but it’s worth seeing as a piece of history.

A Movie A Day #170: Chato’s Land (1972, directed by Michael Winner)


Don’t mess with Charles Bronson.

That’s the main lesson that can be taken away from Chato’s Land.  In this western, Bronson plays Chato, an Apache who enters the wrong saloon and is forced to shoot a racist sheriff in self-defense.  Former Confederate Captain Quincey Whitemore (Jack Palance) forms a posse to track Chato down but soon discovers that his posse is not made up of the best and brightest.  Instead, most of them are sadistic racists who just want to kill Apaches.  Despite Whitemore’s efforts to stop them, the posse rapes Chato’s wife and kills his best friend.  Chato trades his white man’s clothes for a loin cloth and sets out for revenge.

Chato’s Land is historically significant because it was the first of many films that Charles Bronson made with Michael Winner.  The most famous Bronson/Winner collaboration was Death Wish, which also featured Charles Bronson as a man who seeks revenge after his wife is raped.  What is surprising about Chato’s Land is how little screen time Bronson actually has.  Most the film is spent with the posse, which is full of familiar faces (Richard Jordan, Simon Oakland, Victor French, Ralph Waite, and James Whitmore all report for duty).  It actually works to the film’s advantage, making Bronson even more intimidating than usual.  There’s never any doubt that Chato is going to kill every member of the posse but since almost every member of the posse is loathsome, that’s not a problem.

It’s possible that Chato’s Land was meant to be an allegory for the Vietnam War, which is probably giving Michael Winner too much credit.  (In an interview, the author of Death Wish, Brian Garfield, once shared an anecdote about Winner inserting a shot of three nuns into Death Wish and bragging about how the shot was meaningless but that it would fool the critics into thinking he was making a grand statement about something.)  Like most of Winner’s films, Chato’s Land is good but not great.  There are parts of the movie that drag and Jack Palance and Charles Bronson don’t get to share any big scenes together, which seems like a missed opportunity.  Bronson, who was always underrated as an actor, gives one of his better performances as Chato.  Chato does not say much but Bronson could do more with one glare than most actors could do with a monologue.  In Europe, Bronson was known as Il Brutto and Chato’s Land features him at his most brutal.

Music Video of the Day: Comanchero by Moon Ray (1984, dir. ???)


Back when I was in college, I came across this music video…somehow. It has Italo disco singer Moon Ray (Raggio Di Luna) dancing in an Atari game with the occasional shot of her in a ring of fire.

Seeing as this is Italo disco, there is a French description on the video. Running it through Google Translate gives me the following:

The moonbeam in question (MoonRay) invokes the Comanchero, a character with the sulphurous reputation of the mythology of the far west and films of westerns.
The rhythmic rhythm arrives abruptly with feminine voice with the well-felt climate.
A title of the Italian-dance wave in the mid-1980s that remains a summer 1985 hit.

I didn’t know there was a “moonbeam” in question, but I guess it’s Moon Ray herself. She is invoking the Comanchero by dancing with video game graphics that invoke an unfortunate Atari game into the mind of the viewer. The yellow she is wearing is important to bringing the Comanchero. The Comanchero has a reputation “of the mythology of the far west and films of westerns.”

“The rhythmic rhythm arrives abruptly with feminine voice with the well-felt climate.” That is a line that Google translated for me. That’s all I can say about it.

That last sentence simply isn’t true. This song doesn’t remain “a summer 1985 hit.” This song remains popular today, as the video below shows, people are still doing the Comanchero.

Why? I don’t know. Much like I don’t have any other information on this one.

Enjoy!