Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Brion James,
Written by: Michael Tolkin, based on his novel
Directed by: Robert Altman
MPAA Rating: R for language, and for some sensuality
Running Time: 124
Date: 04/03/1992

The Player (1992)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Traffic Was a Bitch

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the greatest Hollywood-eats-itself movies, Robert Altman's The Player starts by taking all the movie formula elements and subverting them. We have murder, sex, chases, thrills and laughs, but all completely backward from the way audiences have been trained to read them.

The unlikely hero -- who in most movies would be the villain -- is a movie executive named Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). Mill begins receiving death threats from a rejected writer, and almost haphazardly guesses that it's David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio). He goes to see Kahane and winds up accidentally killing him, then covering up the crime to look like a robbery. He also begins seeing Kahane's girl, the sexy and aloof June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) who has no interest in movies whatsoever.

At the same time, studio politics begin to threaten Mill's job, and a detective (Whoopi Goldberg) begins nosing around in his life. Altman sprinkles dozens of star cameos -- many veterans of his own films -- throughout, continually calling attention to the idea of filmmaking and acting. An expert use of color (blue for June's apartment, black for Griffin's wardrobe, etc.) and lighting further heightens the sense of unease.

He even opens the movie with a celebrated tracking shot that includes characters talking about celebrated tracking shots. The movie is doubly sweet because it comes from a filmmaker that was once a major player himself, and subsequently became a maverick and an outsider. It's the ultimate in nose-thumbing.

I was the proud owner of the Criterion Collection laserdisc of The Player back in the 1990s, and now I'm happy to review the 2016 Blu-ray edition, which includes many of the same extras, though they're good ones. There's a commentary track by the late Altman, with writer Michael Tolkin, and cinematographer Jean L├ępine, interviews, the press conference from the Cannes Film Festival, a short featurette, guides to the film's cameos and the long opening shot, deleted scenes, outtakes, trailers, TV spots, etc. Sam Wasson provides the liner notes essay. The film itself has been remastered since 1992, in 4K with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. I detected a few flutters here and there in the picture, but otherwise, it's a gorgeous presentation.

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