Category Archives: Drama

The Scapegoat (1959, Robert Hamer)

Despite Bette Davis playing a French dowager countess, The Scapegoat always feels very British. It’s probably exaggerated a little because it takes place in France, features mostly British people (save American Irene Worth) playing French people. Nicole Maurey is the only actual French person in the film, certainly the only one with a French accent. It draws some attention to her and how little she fits with the rest of the film, but it somehow works pretty well, which the film acknowledges enough to take for granted.

Scapegoat is also a little strange because it’s a character study of lead Alec Guinness, who’s in the middle of a peculiar mystery. The film opens with Guinness arriving in France on holiday; he’s a bored bachelor school teacher who’s given up on doing anything but teaching French to rich little British snots. He goes to France every year for the holiday and this time he’s thinking of just staying. He gets his wish in the form of… Alec Guinness. See, turns out Guinness has a French double and his double is a French nobleman who’s got land, title, and a whole bunch of debt. French Guinness is also at least a sociopath and always up to some kind of no good, having—it turns out—just ducked out on wife Worth after she’s suffered a miscarriage, but he also skipped out on mistress Maurey. Neither woman ends up getting an explanation because when Guinness gets home to his estate, he’s not French Guinness, he’s British Guinness. The double got him pass out drunk, switched places, disappeared.

Going forward—British Guinness is always going to be Guinness and French Guinness is always going to be French Guinness. So Guinness doesn’t really get particularly interested in why French Guinness has changed places with him, as life on the estate is an unhappy mess. French Guinness had left under the pretense he’d had a schizophrenic mental breakdown and needed to go to Paris to party. As much as any Alec Guinness, French or otherwise, is going to party. All by himself. No families, mistresses, doctors. And nobody except daughter Annabel Bartlett really seemed to care. But Guinness Guinness is overwhelmed at all the double has around him. He’s got a great kid, a sympathetic wife, a mistress, an estate, a failing but beloved business, and a cranky but not actually dangerous bedridden mum, Davis. Guinness tries to fix French Guinness’s life, which is the character study. But there’s still the mystery. Even if Guinness doesn’t acknowledge it.

That mystery comes back in the last twenty minutes of the film. The first twenty minutes are kind of slow, the next fifty breeze, the last twenty are a little awkward. Guinness is never appropriately suspicious, there’s not enough with Bartlett in the finale, and the resolution is too abrupt. Those reasons, more than everyone speaking with a British accent save Maurey, are why the film feels so British. It’s almost like director Hamer is trying to direct a slightly different, more comedic mystery script while the script is actually trying not to be comedic or mysterious. Only Hamer wrote the script; based on a Gore Vidal adaptation of the novel. So I want to assume it’s Vidal who turned it into this character study but who knows. Because, based on a summary, the novel sounds a bit more melodramatic.

It works out pretty well in the end, all things considered, but just makes it.

Guinness is phenomenal. The script gives him these great quiet reflection scenes without any narration—his narration is always matter-of-fact and goes away after a while; his reflection scenes are always beyond subtle. He’s exceptionally patient. Then as French Guinness, he’s got this subtle character arc, which the script sort of hints at but Guinness takes it a different direction. It’s rather good.

The special effects putting Guinness on screen twice are all good. Hamer never goofs off too much with it. He’s got an enthusiastic workman quality to his direction here, with cinematographer Paul Beeson helping a bit, and the special effects scenes are just the same. It’s not a gimmick, it’s a scene.

Of the supporting performances, Davis’s is the most fun. She’s got maybe three scenes and manages to imply a character arc. Bartlett’s performance is the most important because she’s the reason Guinness gets so interested. See, French Guinness—despite driving her into town each week for a music lesson (but really so he could go see Maurey)—he always wanted a boy. Guinness has no such prejudice. He also doesn’t have any animosity with Worth, which French Guinness seemed to have cultivated. Worth’s fine. She rarely gets time enough to develop her character. Pamela Brown has a really good scene opposite “brother” Guinness (she’s otherwise background). So all the acting is good or better.

The Scapegoat just has tone problems the conclusion doesn’t resolve satisfactorily enough, which… seems very British to me.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Hamer; screenplay by Hamer, adaptation by Gore Vidal, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier; director of photography, Paul Beeson; edited by Jack Harris; music by Bronislau Kaper; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Michael Balcon; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Alec Guinness (John Barratt), Annabel Bartlett (Marie-Noel), Nicole Maurey (Bela), Irene Worth (Francoise), Geoffrey Keen (Gaston), Noel Howlett (Dr. Aloin), Peter Bull (Aristide), Pamela Brown (Blanche), and Bette Davis (The Countess).

THIS POST IS PART OF THE FOURTH ANNUAL BETTE DAVIS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Hard Surfaces (2017, Zach Brown)

Hard Surfaces is pretty thin. Sometimes it’s translucently thin. The film itself never has any depth, but fairly regularly the actors at least show they could give it some depth, if it weren’t for the thinness. Ostensibly the film’s well-meaning, but that quality comes off as fake. Like writer (and director) Brown is using trying to leverage melodramatic tropes to tell his story, which even he doesn’t care very much about because it’s impossible to care very much about successful cokehead Winston-Salem, North Carolina photographer Shawn Pyfrom (who also produced). He’s such a big hit, he goes to red carpet openings—which later makes no sense when you find out he’s been living a lie in Winston-Salem for years. Surfaces exists in a world without much of an Internet. It’s not even clear the cellphones can text. Pyfrom is dating professional mean girl Julia Voth (who also produced); actually she’s a prosumer mean girl; Voth not being some kind of YouTube influencer is one of Surfaces many misses. She couldn’t be a YouTube influencer, however, and not just because the Internet doesn’t exist, but because Voth’s character isn’t allowed that level of depth. She’s just the bitchy, sex-crazed harpy who seduces Pyfrom whenever there’s a pause in dialogue. Because Pyfrom doesn’t want kids, so all Voth can give him is sex. And enable his cocaine and prescription pill addiction.

Pyfrom’s hit photographs are all of people on drugs. His studio is in his apartment and even though these subjects sometimes make Pyfrom uncomfortable (Sterling Hurst in the film’s only thing approaching a standout performance), he doesn’t worry about it ever coming back on him. His buddy—and the guy who sells pictures—Chase Fein hires the subjects. So they’re paying people to get dangerous high and then Pyfrom takes pictures of them drooling, then Fein sells them. Fein, we later find out, is all about his AA-fueled sobriety. Fein knows drugs are bad, he just doesn’t care about them being bad for other people. He’s even got an overdose story at one point. He’s also a… hipster? I mean, he walks around barefoot all the time, mostly wears long-sleeve shirts and shorts, eats in front of people at a place of business and talks with his mouth full, and does yoga on his desk. Given Brown doesn’t appear to direct his actors at all, it’s impressive how much Fein’s able to get away with when the script and direction aren’t ever there to back him up.

But then Pyfrom’s past catches up to him; his sister and her wife die in a tragic boating accident off Catalina. Because where else does anyone die except in tragic boating accidents except off Catalina. They’ve left him their daughter, who—before they kicked him out of the state and he left in tears, they all promised he’d care for if they ever died. There’s some twenty-first century “not that there’s anything wrong with it” from the two female characters in the film, bitchy girlfriend Voth (who needs to have a kid to validate her existence we later find out) and virginally wonderful social worker Sophie Kargman. Voth can get away with her surprise at lesbians existing because she’s supposed to be playing shallow, but Kargman’s awkward delivery of “partner” instead of wife in a legal setting? It’s a creative decision on someone’s part and a dumb one.

There are a lot of dumb creative decisions in the film, but they’re mostly Brown’s script. It’s not like Pyfrom ever screws up a scene. Quite the opposite. He’s perfectly fine doing this movie all about how sad it is this thirty-something white guy has to take a measure of responsibility–basically, it’s about him realizing it’s not a good idea to get high around tween ward Hannah Victoria Stock. Stock ought to give the movie’s best performance, but she doesn’t because Brown’s so bad at directing her scenes. It’s like they used the worst take in every scene, then cut it wrong. But it’s not like Pyfrom has any arc with Stock. Or, more, the other way around. See, once Stock is introduced and starts eating instead of being locked away in her room while Pyfrom day drinks (it’s okay though, thanks to the coke, he never gets drunk; it’s established in the first scene because the script is all about priorities), she pretty much disappears. Fein becomes her babysitter while Pyfrom and Kargman have this awful courtship then disappointment once someone (psst, it’s Voth) calls into social services he’s a drunken cokehead who probably shouldn’t be caring for a tween.

However, since Pyfrom never has any problems other than, you know, passing out on his counter, and never actually does anything with Stock except maybe feed her and drop her off at Fein’s gallery… it’s hard to see a problem. But then you realize it’s because Brown is manipulating everything to make Pyfrom a victim, even when Fein’s accusing him of playing victim, there’s another layer to make Pyfrom the victim. Because we don’t have all the details. Sure, he lied to pal and business partner Fein and live-in girlfriend Voth about his past and they never found out not just because there’s no Internet but because it turns out the local newspaper, which apparently does multiple stories about Pyfrom’s photography, never did some basic checking into his identity. It’s not like he had his name legally changed, so Voth never looked at the water bill either.

The suspension of disbelief Surfaces requires, not just for plot points but for characters and the ground situation itself… it needs to bring something more than the acceptable acting of a typo-free but insipid screenplay. And whatever screenwriting book Brown read to help with the third act needs to be burned; it’s reveal after gimmick after reveal after gimmick after reveal.

If Brown had some personality as a director, there might be something to Hard Surfaces. If Voth and Kargman had switched roles—Voth implies depth, Kargman never does—it’d be something. If Brown knew how to direct his actors, it’d be something. If Noel Maitland’s photography weren’t so perfectly competent, it’d be something. Hard Surfaces is the kind of thing where the only thing it can’t be is vapid and Brown brings nothing to it but vapid. The way he avoids the female characters is astounding. Like, Stock ought to be the main character. Instead, she gets less to do than anyone else. It’s also weird the sister left him her kid but none of the kid’s possessions.

Pyfrom’s okay. It’s actually surprising how well he maintains that okay throughout the film. Stock’s likable, but should be good. She also doesn’t get to grieve because she’s not given that much character. Voth. Voth could be the film’s secret weapon, instead she’s just as much a drag on it as Kargman. And Kargman’s a drag.

But, hey, Fein’s good in a crap role and that Hurst guy is awesome.

Hard Surfaces has some decent, if insincere, performances, but nothing else. Except director Brown in a bit part where the gag is he stutters.

Wait, wait, I forgot—the Panavision aspect ratio for the DV. Really, really, really, really, really bad idea.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Zach Brown; director of photography, Noel Maitland; edited by Patrick Bellanger; music by Ryan Rapsys; production designer, Kristen Adams and Jayme Helms; produced by Julia Voth, Shawn Pyfrom, and Brown; released by North of Two.

Starring Shawn Pyfrom (Adrian), Chase Fein (Steve), Hannah Victoria Stock (Maddy), Sophie Kargman (Sophie), Julia Voth (Liz), and Sterling Hurst (Dale).


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Room (2015, Lenny Abrahamson)

Room is the story of a woman (Brie Larson) and her son (Jacob Tremblay) who, after seven years in captivity by rapist Sean Bridgers (Tremblay being born as a result of one of those rapes), escape and have to adjust to the outside world. The film is from Tremblay’s perspective, with some occasional narration. Though never when the film actually needs narration. Screenwriter Emma Donoghue adapted her own novel, which kind of explains why the perspective is so unchanging, even when it’s not working on film. There are these scenes with Tremblay without narration where his behavior begs explanation. Instead, Donoghue and director Abrahamson just let the audience ponder. Abrahamson actually ignores the presence of the narration because he’s concentrating on Larson. Room wants to be both through Tremblay’s perspective but really be Larson’s movie.

It doesn’t work out in either department. Larson gets this amazing character and character arc, but then when the movie needs her to go away, she’s gone. Only the movie then sticks with Tremblay, which makes sense if it’s a first person novel, but not the movie because just because child Tremblay doesn’t understand what’s going on, the audience does. It’s a dodge. But then the film doesn’t really go deep on Tremblay, instead it just shifts that perspective to Joan Allen and William H. Macy as the grandparents. Of the two, Allen gets the better part but Macy gets the better scenes. There’s never enough with Larson and either of them, since it’s all got to be tethered to Tremblay.

However, outside its problems with perspective—both in the direction and on a fundamental level with the screenwriting–Room is outstanding. Abrahamson and editor Nathan Nugent work up this harrowing pace for the captivity sequence. Again, there are the nitpicky perspective things, but the film effectively and immediately drops the audience into this extraordinarily confined existence with Larson and Tremblay. The opening present action isn’t too long. The film starts on or just before Tremblay’s fifth birthday. The rest of the action plays out in the next week. For that section. The second half’s present action appears to take months but doesn’t really matter once Larson’s no longer narratively relevant.

So while Abrahamson never wows for thriller sequences or sublime ones, he also never tries for a wow only to miss. His direction is confident and deliberate, which the film does need. Room has so many ways it could go wrong and can’t really afford any missteps because they’d mess up the momentum of Larson’s performance. Because even though Tremblay has the bigger adjustment—she been telling him the real world was just something on the TV until the middle of the first act—Larson’s got a lot more repercussions. Though, again, both Larson and Tremblay get cheated out of dealing with those repercussions on screen.

Basically there needs to be a dramatic stylistic shift somewhere in the second half and there isn’t. Abrahamson never gives the impression of guiding the film. He’s always sticking to the script and doing well directing it, getting some amazing moments from his entire cast, but Room never quite feels organic. It feels raw—though the occasionally too smooth digital video hurts that impression rather than helping it. Oh. And the wide Panavision aspect ratio, which… just… no.

Larson’s performance is spectacular. She’s got a lot of big, dramatic moments and she nails them all. Even when the script doesn’t stick with her. In fact, Larson sort of sums of the problem with Room. Abrahamson knows the movie needs to be all about Larson’s performance and how her character arc affects Tremblay. Meanwhile, Room is actually from the perspective of Tremblay. The script doesn’t care what Abrahamson or Larson come up with.

But the script’s also excellent. It’s just… got a perspective problem.

Tremblay’s quite good. It’s impossible to imagine Room without Tremblay, but it’s also impossible to imagine a Room where Tremblay’s the protagonist and not the erstwhile subject of the picture. Because it’s not his movie, his part has nowhere near the possibility of Larson’s.

Allen’s good, Macy’s good. Tom McCamus is good. Bridgers is terrifying. Amanda Brugel has a great scene as a cop (with Joe Pingue as her “holy shit, men are useless” partner).

Stephen Rennicks’s music is effective.

Room’s story is bold. Not ostentatious, just bold. It’s a bold story, with a bold performance from Larson. It’s just not a bold film. It’s not a boldly produced film. It’s safe. It’s quite good, often spectacular, but it’s way too safe.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson; screenplay by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Nathan Nugent; music by Stephen Rennicks; production designer, Ethan Tobman; produced by David Gross and Ed Guiney; released by A24.

Starring Brie Larson (Joy), Jacob Tremblay (Jack), Joan Allen (Nancy), Tom McCamus (Leo), William H. Macy (Robert), Amanda Brugel (Officer Parker), Joe Pingue (Officer Grabowski), and Sean Bridgers (Old Nick).


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Crooklyn (1994, Spike Lee)

Crooklyn is a series of memories. They’re mostly the main character’s memories—and if they’re not, they’re definitely from her perception. The memories start in the spring and go through the summer. Director Lee and his cowriters—and siblings (Crooklyn is semi-autobiographical) Joie Lee and Cinqué Lee frequently change the pace of the memories. Some are long scenes with a lot of action, some are shorter transitional scenes, memorable for their placement in the narrative and their location. The Lee siblings are very comfortable with the film’s narrative distance and changing it; they nimbly move between characters during the first half or so then turn around and slow down to focus on the protagonist. When they speed up again, there’s still the same tighter focus, but a lot more going on and at a different pace.

Zelda Harris is the protagonist. She’s nine years old; the only daughter of schoolteacher Alfre Woodward and successful working musician but not successful composer Delroy Lindo. She has four brothers. Carlton Williams plays the oldest, presumably Spike. He’s a jerk. He also gets the most material to do because he’s the oldest and he and Harris have a whole character arc going on through the movie but it’s one of the quietest subplots, because there’s not much room for laughs. Because Crooklyn has a lot of laughs. Woodward’s intense and the kids are stinkers. And Lindo not really being any help is one of the louder subplots. The masculinity isn’t terribly toxic, but it’s far from good. It leads to some big fights and tense discussions between Woodward and Lindo, which feature some phenomenal acting from the pair. Harris usually gets involved too, since her brothers are too busy being boys. The brothers being boys often contributes to a lot of the humor, which the script never uses to alleviate the drama. The two can coexist, but ones not a solution for the other.

As the film goes on—it starts towards the end of a school year, with Harris dreading the possibility of leaving Brooklyn to visit Southern relations over the summer. There are no scenes at the school. The film either takes place on the block, in the house, or down South. Until the third act, anyway. Third act is a completely different—appropriately—story for locations. But as the film goes on, the Lees take their time establishing the ground situation, establishing the characters, establishing the relationships. Exposition dumps are rare, usually only when they need to give context for an earlier detail, usually from Woodward, who is very fallible, she’s just not fallible about dumb things. She’s never sainted in the film, but she’s closer than anyone else to being a saint. The script doesn’t shy away from children’s cruelty or stupidity (not even Harris’s). It also is very careful in how it portrays Lindo, who takes the longest to get established. It’s a great script.

When summer finally arrives—in the second half of the film—and Harris goes down South to visit aunt and uncle Frances Foster and Norman Matlock and, more, cousin Patriece Nelson, Harris gets to really run the movie for a while. She gets to experience the strangeness of her relations and the South, but not to be aware of how that experience is going to perturb her character development.

Because she’s nine.

When the summer vacation is over, there’s a different Harris, but there’s also a very different situation waiting for her back at home. The script changes the pacing of the memories. Some events get missed, some events have more weight, and we’re watching Harris exist through them and experience them but have no idea what’s happening to her. Crooklyn isn’t a kids movie per se… but it’s also not not a kids movie. The film’s always from a kid’s eye-level, let’s say, and then it turns out that eye-level just perfectly matches Harris’s. It’s a really great script.

Performances—Harris, Woodward, and Lindo are the whole show. There are some really good supporting performances (Isaiah Washington’s performance as a Vietnam vet deserves its own movie). But it’s all about Harris, Woodward, and Lindo. As for whether Harris has better scenes with Woodward or Lindo on her own… it’s probably Lindo, just because how the character development arc goes. But there are still some fabulous ones between Woodward and Harris. Harris knows Lindo’s not exactly the most responsible adult. So lots of gristle for scenes.

Technically, Crooklyn’s near flawless. Great photography from Arthur Jafa, even better editing from Barry Alexander Brown, which is made even more effective thanks to the awesome Terrence Blanchard score. Wynn Thomas’s production design is awesome too. Especially when Harris goes down South and Lee stretches the screen to show it as otherworldly (distorted and televised). The production design is almost more important during that section, since the audience has to see and understand what Harris is seeing because she might not really understand it.

The stretching is director Lee’s most extreme style choice. He’s got a dream sequence, which fits into the film’s existing stylistic flourishes—Spike Lee appears a neighborhood glue-sniffer and jerk, so he gives himself most of the flash. It fits, given how his stand-in, Williams, treats Harris. Meanwhile, Joie Lee–Harris being her stand-in—shows up as a slightly overbearing aunt. Uncredited. Third screenwriter Cinqué Lee doesn’t cameo.

I haven’t even gotten to the soundtrack, which maybe was produced by Alex Steyermark. The use of seventies songs is exquisite, both in the narrative—as a detail—or as non-diegetic accompaniment of the scenes. It’s awesome.

Crookyln’s awesome. Harris, Woodward, Linda, and Lees Spike, Joie, and Cinqué make something special.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Spike Lee; screenplay by Joie Lee, Spike Lee, and Cinqué Lee, based on a story by Joie Lee; director of photography, Arthur Jafa; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Wynn Thomas; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Zelda Harris (Troy), Alfre Woodard (Carolyn), Delroy Lindo (Woody), Carlton Williams (Clinton), Sharif Rashed (Wendell), Tse-Mach Washington (Joseph), Christopher Knowings (Nate), José Zúñiga (Tommy La La), Isaiah Washington (Vic), David Patrick Kelly (Tony Eyes), Patriece Nelson (Viola), Frances Foster (Aunt Song), Norman Matlock (Uncle Clem), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Uncle Brown), Spike Lee (Snuffy), N. Jeremi Duru (Right Hand Man), Ivelka Reyes (Jessica), and Joie Lee (Aunt Maxine).


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