Armchair Cinephile 

Shampoo (Columbia/TriStar) Tadpole (Miramax) The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) (Columbia / TriStar) The Long Goodbye (MGM)

Warren Beatty, not known as one of Hollywood's bigger Puritans, found a role that fit like a glove in 1975's Shampoo, where he plays a hairdresser to the rich, famous, and horny. "Found" isn't exactly the word; Beatty, who by then had plenty of clout, hassled and cajoled screenwriter Robert (Chinatown) Towne until the part was exactly to his liking. As directed by the eccentric Hal Ashby, the movie is neither a full-on comedy nor the straightforward social satire it would have been in other hands; it's mostly a character study of a flaky, self-absorbed man who went to beauty school so he could sleep with his clients. Beatty's performance is the main reason to see it, but his opposite number, a philandering millionaire played by Jack Warden, steals some scenes.

The Voltaire-reading prep-school star of Tadpole begins the film as anything but a hedonist. The 15-going-on-40 year old has fallen in love with his stepmother, and can't be bothered with female classmates who have crushes on him. But in a drunken moment, he lets himself be seduced by his stepmother's best friend, Bebe Neuwirth, and he spends the rest of the movie trying to live that down. This indie won a lot of fans at Sundance, but outside that oxygen-deprived environment it's hard to ignore its flaws: the writing is precious, not all the acting is good, and the hi-def video cinematography is unappealing. Once the precocious little Holden Caulfield wannabe gets tangled up with his Mrs. Robinson, though, those complaints become irrelevant; Neuwirth is just the bit of spice the story needs, and sets up some hilariously awkward sequences between the kid and his parents.

Robert Altman played Raymond Chandler like a cheap floozie in his 1973 interpretation of The Long Goodbye. He took the author's immortal Philip Marlowe and tossed him to Elliot Gould, who wore the man like a suit that sat in the bottom of a gym bag for weeks; Gould wanders aimlessly, muttering to himself, saying whatever comes into his head. What Gould doesn't get is Marlowe's perverse instinct for doing the right thing no matter how foolish it appears; even Marlowe's most ill-advised wisecracks were more deliberate than anything the actor does here, fueled by an indignant, if sometimes covert, morality. They didn't call him a tarnished knight for nothing, but Altman isn't very interested in capturing the spirit of the character or his environment - he even ends the picture with Marlowe doing something he could never have considered doing in Chandler's world. Seen as nothing more than an Altman film, it's a nice piece of atmospheric storytelling, but the director shouldn't have tried to peddle it as a reinvention of one of the 20th Century's most iconic characters. For an idea how a radical reworking of Chandler's world could have worked, see the Coen Brothers' fantastic The Big Lebowski.

In the icy northern extremes of Canada, two Inuit brothers and their wives share a cot. During the night, one of the wives rolls up against her husband's brother; while their partners sleep beside them, the two have wordless, somnambular sex. Unfortunately for everyone, somebody wakes up. That's one of the events - betrayals and insults that feel lifted from ancient myths, as they are - that fuels the action in The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat), a nearly three-hour epic filmed in Inuktitut, the language spoken by the Inuits. Shot dazzlingly in digital video by an independent Inuit filmmaker, it is a truly engrossing experience, a film that transports the viewer in a way that's increasingly rare as the movies exhaust the world's supply of unseen wonders.

Now that it's out on DVD, film buffs everywhere can see a movie that, despite winning over almost every urban critic, didn't play long outside of New York and Los Angeles. Home viewers should be advised, though, that it's a demanding film; it's confusing, and the first half hour may pass before you have much idea what's going on. This is not a disc to put on pause while you fix popcorn, take phone calls, or go to the bathroom, but it repays the effort many times over. Understanding every detail of the obscure plot isn't necessary; in its most powerful moments, the images alone are enough, telling what turns out to be a harrowing tale of survival and revenge. •

More by John DeFore



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