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For, Friday, May 27, 2016

EDITOR’S NOTE: The boutique label Criterion Collection has issued a sharp Blu-ray and DVD of one of Robert Altman’s best films, a sharp Hollywood satire that film buffs have embraced. Here’s my April 24, 1994, review from the Deseret News.

Audiences that enjoy playing spot-the-star will find themselves in heaven when they see "The Player."

And those who are hip to Hollywood in-jokes will also get a big kick out of this film — anyone who regularly watches "Entertainment Tonight" or reads any of the insider magazines, even Premiere and Entertainment Weekly, may qualify these days.

But I'm convinced that "The Player" will be well received by just about any modern movie audience. In its own way, this film is not only up there with the best inside-Hollywood pictures, "The Bad and the Beautiful," for example, it's also up there with "MASH," "The Hospital" and "Network" as being among the best movies that have taken scathing satirical potshots at a particular industry — whether it's the military, medicine, television or movies.

"The Player" stars Tim Robbins (the goofy pitcher in "Bull Durham"), perfect as the paranoid, humorless Griffin Mill, a studio executive whose job it is to hear script ideas — "story pitches."

The main plot turns on the threatening letters and postcards he's receiving from an anonymous writer he has put off with his favorite line: "I'll get back to you." So, Mill plays detective, finds a suspect (Vincent D'Onofrio), tracks him down, and in a confrontation, kills him. But did he kill the right writer?

Police detectives (Whoopi Goldberg, singer Lyle Lovett) suspect Mill but have no evidence. And before long, Mill is dating the writer's "widow" (Greta Scacchi), adding fuel to the fire.

But this plot is almost incidental to all that surrounds it, as we see moviemakers wheeling and dealing on their car phones, in studio bungalows surrounded by palm trees, and at parties and restaurants where they are surrounded by a parade of familiar movie stars. And the movie stars play themselves — from Jack Lemmon to Cher, from Burt Reynolds to Teri Garr. More than 60 in all.

Robert Altman, right, directs high-profile guest stars for 'The Player.'

The tone is set by the opening sequence, a lengthy tracking shot that flows from character to character as we hear the studio security chief (Fred Ward) complain about movies today containing too many edits rather than long, flowing shots.

During that scene, Buck Henry (who wrote "The Graduate") pitches a new film, "The Graduate, Part II"; a group of Japanese businessmen are shown around the lot as an unctuous guide tries to make an impression; director Alan Rudolph suggests a new movie that will be a combination of "Ghost" and "The Manchurian Candidate"; etc. With every new project that is pitched to Mill, we hear someone say it should star "a Julia Roberts or a Bruce Willis."

And in the end, there is a hysterical movie-within-the-movie climax that perfectly wraps it all up.

Director Robert Altman ("M*A*S*H," "Vincent & Theo"), who has been inside and outside of the Hollywood machine, certainly knows his subject, and his trademark techniques — camera shots that zoom in and out, overlapping dialogue — are used to their best advantage. Screenwriter Michael Tolkin ("The Rapture"), who based the script on his own novel, likewise knows both sides and has some wonderfully knowing characters and situations here.


Together they have made a highly entertaining, dark film that says much about Hollywood — and the audiences who watch Hollywood movies. When it's all over and you're still laughing about the hilarious climax, you may also begin to think about some of its deeper implications.

That alone makes this movie something special.

"The Player" is rated R for profanity, violence, some vulgar language, a sex scene and nudity.