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View From The Couch

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THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED (2005). Based on a true story, this handsome drama directed by actor Bill Paxton (his second such stint behind the camera, following the muddled thriller Frailty) centers on the 1913 US Open and how a 20-year-old American lad named Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf) finds himself pitted against two British pros -- one being six-time British Open winner Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane) -- for the championship. On paper, it sounds like the usual "brash Yankee upstart shows the stiff-upper-lip Brits a thing or two," an arrogant notion at this point in time: Given the extent to which this White House has shamed the nation in the eyes of the world, only the lockstep groupies of this corrupt administration would cheer a movie that shows us grinding foreigners into the dirt. Instead, the film harbors an unexpected resonance aimed at the downtrodden rather than the wealthy warhawks: Francis and his two British opponents all spring from humble origins, fighting prejudice every step of the way as their grit and determination allow them to beat the ruling class at its own game. It's an American story in the truest sense: Championing the underdog, it depicts the struggle between the haves and the have-nots -- and for once, it's the haves who are left wanting. What could be more inspiring than that? DVD extras include separate audio commentaries by Paxton and producer-scripter Mark Frost, a 15-minute making-of piece and a half-hour vintage feature on Ouimet.

Movie: ***

Extras: **1/2

ROBERT ALTMAN COLLECTION (1970-1979). Robert Altman's most celebrated films were made for different studios -- Nashville for Paramount, The Player and Short Cuts for Fine Line, McCabe & Mrs. Miller for Warner, etc. -- so it's a good bet we'll never see a box set honoring his finest cinematic achievements. However, this hasn't stopped 20th Century Fox from trying to slip one by the public with a collection that includes one classic and three minor efforts.

The Altman gem in the set is MASH (1970), a popular film that led to an even more popular TV series. Set during the Korean War but clearly playing off the tensions created by the then-raging Vietnam War, this dark comedy charts the exploits of medical surgeons Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (Elliott Gould) as they patch up wounded soldiers in between rounds of boozing, whoring and playing practical jokes. The charges of misogyny that surfaced throughout Altman's career probably started with this film's utter humiliation of Margaret "Hot Lips" O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), though it should be noted that her fellow killjoy Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) receives equally vicious treatment. Their constant debasement admittedly does come across as overkill, but the rest of the film's barbed humor goes down with a smooth kick. Ring Lardner Jr. earned an Oscar for his screenplay, while Gary Burghoff went on to reprise his role as Radar O'Reilly in the long-running sitcom.

Arriving on the scene three years after Nashville, A Wedding (1978) tries to recapture the same sprawling appeal, but this time the results are surprisingly flat. Part of the problem rests with Altman's casting: While the director has earned a deserved reputation for assembling and orchestrating impressive ensembles (most recently for Gosford Park and, one hopes, the upcoming A Prairie Home Companion), most of the luminaries here (including Carol Burnett, Mia Farrow and Lauren Hutton) blend into the surroundings and make no impression whatsoever. Only Howard Duff, as a wry doctor with a taste for the booze ("Just to the brim, please"), manages to break through the clatter.

A Perfect Couple (1979) is apparently the filmmaker's idea of a low-key romantic comedy, and for a while, it works. Altman regular Paul Dooley plays Alex Theodopoulos, a middle-aged man looking for love via a video dating service. He's paired with Sheila Shea (Marta Heflin), a singer in a band called Keepin' 'Em Off the Streets (and fronted by Ted Neeley, best known as the screen's Jesus Christ Superstar). The efforts of both lonelyhearts to establish any sort of momentum in their sputtering relationship repeatedly get stifled by outside forces, including the fact that Theo still lives under the thumb of his domineering father (Titos Vandis). Like the central romance, the story occasionally runs out of steam, and a final shot of another "perfect couple" seen throughout the film shows that even an uplifting love story stands no chance against Altman's rampant cynicism.

Over the years, various acquaintances have warned me to stay away from Quintet (1979), considered by many to be (along with Popeye) the nadir of Altman's career. Well, add me to the short (very short) list of viewers who found a measure of merit to the picture. Starring Paul Newman and a supporting cast of international stars, this bleak sci-fi parable is set in the earth of the future, when the world has entered a new ice age and many of the survivors take part in a deadly game called Quintet. Critics charge that the film is slow and ponderous; that's true, but it's unfair to dismiss the movie out of hand without considering its assets. This is one of Altman's most technically accomplished productions, with excellent cinematography, set design and music score; it establishes an appropriately bleak mood from the start and punctuates that atmosphere with some unforgettable imagery (who can ever forget those roaming, ravenous dogs?); and the story's symbolic overtones (what would logically precede an ice age but a Cold War?) and examination of human conditioning (even a death sport might be viewed as a welcome alternative to a ceaselessly dull existence) still resonate today.

The MASH DVD is merely the same one-disc edition that's been around for a few years; extra features include audio commentary by Altman and the AMC Backstory episode on the making of the film. The other three titles are new to DVD; the only extras are short making-of featurettes and theatrical trailers.

MASH: ***1/2

A Wedding: **

A Perfect Couple: **1/2

Quintet: **1/2

Extras: **

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