Category Archives: Drama

Lawn Dogs (1997, John Duigan)

There’s a lot going on in Lawn Dogs. Lots of good things, lots of strange things, lots of bad things; the worst is probably housewife Kathleen Quinlan’s lover molesting her daughter, Mischa Barton. The film doesn’t want to deal with it. Lawn Dogs is lots of visual splendor, courtesy director Duigan and cinematographer Elliot Davis–set in a affluent Kentucky subdivision–and the film uses that visual splendor and the film’s general quirkiness to pivot away from ever dealing with the more difficult elements. On one hand, the story needs it to maintain its lyrical quality. On the other, it means there’s only so far the film can get.

Because even though it’s from ten year-old Barton’s perspective, it’s filtered. Barton knows what’s going on with mom Quinlan and the late teenage lover, David Barry Gray, but never shows how that knowledge affects her. She gets around to telling her parents–Christopher McDonald is the dad–about it, only to recant because Gray’s father is more affluent than McDonald and McDonald’s got political ambitions; Barton then recants. For a moment, Quinlan is about to become more than a precisely performed caricature and then Lawn Dogs drops that idea. McDonald only gets some depth at the very end, so it’s exactly disappointing but it’s a definite decision Duigan and writer Naomi Wallace are making with the narrative distance. These people are pushed back. Barton’s closer, Sam Rockwell–as the neighborhood lawn mower and Barton’s secret buddy (Rockwell’s twenty-one)–is closer. But McDonald and Quinlan? They’re so far back and so two dimensional and played for such dark humor, they don’t even cast shadows.

At the start of the film, Barton–who’s recovering from two open heart surgeries and being a social pariah before the family moved back to Kentucky for McDonald’s political ambition–happens across Rockwell’s trailer. He runs her off, she keeps coming back. Eventually he relents and allows himself to be befriended. The film is split, mostly, between Barton and Rockwell. While Barton gets a lot of time but not a lot of insight (she’s ten after all and living partially in a fairytale of her own mental construction), Rockwell gets a little less time but there’s the insight. It’s subtle, but it’s clear. Wallace’s script makes sure–without exposition–Rockwell’s character is clear. The most efficient aspects come when it’s how the rich people treat Rockwell, the subtle ways they humiliate him and, in some cases, objectify him. And his poverty. There’s a lot about class in Lawn Dogs, even if Barton’s too young to really understand it and Rockwell’s not going to talk about it. It’s quietly devastating; he wants to protect her from the damage she does with her privilege. She’s ten, after all.

Bruce McGill is the subdivision rent-a-cop. He’s worked his way up; not enough to live in the subdivision, but enough to crap all over Rockwell every chance he gets. McGill’s got the third best part in the film. He’s just pretending to be a caricature so he can fit in with the rich people.

The film hints at a timeline–Barton’s got her last heart doctor checkup–but doesn’t stick to it. It’s about she and Rockwell’s friendship and how the discovery of it destroys lives. Along the way, there’s a bit of fun, a lot about how living with crappy parents McDonald and Quinlan weighs on Barton (even if she can’t express it), and then some about Rockwell. There’s this vignette, completely separate from the rest of the film, where they visit his parents–Beth Grant and Tom Aldredge–in a mobile home park.

From the first shot of the park, it’s clear this lower working class existence is far more rewarding than the sterile perfection of the subdivision. Kids playing, for instance. In the subdivision, there’s only this one other kid–Miles Meehan–who’s younger than Barton and an already accomplished sociopath. The interlude with Grant and Aldredge, which deepens Rockwell’s back story without actually informing his character at all, is fantastic stuff. It just doesn’t much matter to the rest of Lawn Dogs because even if Barton gets to see Rockwell’s soul laid bare… she can’t really understand it. She’s ten.

One of the film’s greatest successes–of the actors, the direction, and especially the script–is never to make Rockwell and Barton’s friendship creepy. Rockwell’s character is aware of its inappropriateness, but he’s filled with (a previously unknown ability to capacity for) compassion for Barton. Meanwhile Barton has cast Rockwell in her mental fairytale, though his role keeps changing. Though the fairytale thing is really only first and third act. It doesn’t keep up through the second, which is too bad. At least in Barton’s understanding of her life through the fairytale’s lens, there’s some effort to show her understanding.

The acting from the leads is great. Rockwell’s better, obviously, because some of Barton’s performance is just about being a naive kid. It doesn’t always need a lot. Duigan and editor Humphrey Dixon edit the performances to maximum effect. It’s not so much Barton is wise beyond her years than Rockwell isn’t wise enough for his own. They’re wonderful together.

Good music from Trevor Jones; he toggles ably the cockeyed modern fairytale, the yuppie condemnation, the rural poverty, and the working class redemption. Again, there’s a lot going on in Lawn Dogs and–at the very least–Rockwell and writer Wallace (and McGill) get it. Even if Duigan wants to avoid it by doing some gorgeous composition with cinematographer Davis. The film’s gorgeous and quirky and intentionally distracted from itself.

The other supporting performances–Eric Mabius as Gray’s friend and a rich boy with an illicit crush on Rockwell, as well as Angie Harmon as a rich girl having an illicit affair with Rockwell–are good. Gray’s the weakest performance in the film, but also the thinest part. He’s just a dangerous predator.

McGill is really good. He gets overshadowed, sure–and rightly, Barton and Rockwell are great–but he’s really good.

Lawn Dogs is an accomplishment. Just could’ve been more of one if Duigan and Wallace wanted to deal with the tougher issues they raise instead of avoid them.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Duigan; written by Naomi Wallace; director of photography, Elliot Davis; edited by Humphrey Dixon; music by Trevor Jones; production designer, John Myhre; produced by Duncan Kenworthy; released by The Rank Organisation.

Starring Mischa Barton (Devon Stockard), Sam Rockwell (Trent Burns), Christopher McDonald (Mr. Stockard), Kathleen Quinlan (Mrs. Stockard), Bruce McGill (Nash), Eric Mabius (Sean), David Barry Gray (Brett), Angie Harmon (Pam), Beth Grant (Mrs. Burns), and Tom Aldredge (Mr. Burns).


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Sometimes a Great Notion (1971, Paul Newman)

Sometimes a Great Notion is all about the joys of toxic masculinity and apathy. At some points in the near two hour runtime, it might hint at being about the virtues of rugged American individualism, family, and maybe capitalism, but it’s not. Screenwriter John Gay avoids exploring those virtues like the plague or directly contradicts them in exposition. If not in the plot events. And director Newman is more interested in having fun. He’s serious at times, but outside one scene, he’s always most interested in the fun. The fun is usually when his character (Newman, at forty-five, is playing a logger in his early thirties) is being a rugged, adventurous, caution to the wind type, whether it’s climbing to the top of a tree he’s just cut the top off, dirt biking, brawling, whatever. You can always tell when it’s one of those moments because Henry Mancini’s score does its jazzy folksy Americana thing. Its loud, obnoxious jazzy folksy Americana thing. Newman, as director, uses Mancini’s score to do heavy dramatic lifting in scenes–not the folksy stuff–to the detriment of the performances, which is bewildering, since there are so many good performances in the film. Even if they’re not entirely successful.

Newman is eldest son in a successful logging family. Henry Fonda is the dad, Lee Remick is Newman’s wife, Richard Jaeckel’s a cousin. The film starts in the middle of a loggers’ union strike. Except Fonda and family aren’t in the union; they’re scabs (but not exactly because they’re just non-union; they’re still breaking the picket line and apathetic to their former friends and still neighbors literally starving around them). The townspeople aren’t too happy with them. Newman’s quiet, Fonda’s loud and demanding (and partially immobilized due to a half body cast), Jaeckel’s goofy (and religious). Remick and Linda Lawson (as Jaeckel’s wife) cook and clean for the men, but otherwise keep quiet. Their opinions aren’t to be heard. Newman and Jaeckel’s opinions aren’t worth anything (to Fonda) but they at least get to be heard.

Then, out of nowhere, younger son Michael Sarrazin–half-brother to Newman–returns home. He’s a long-haired hippie college graduate (apparently, it’s never actually confirmed he even went to college, he just gets teased about it) with a lot of emotional baggage. After Fonda drove his mother away, she killed herself. No one sent for Sarrazin, no one came to the funeral. He went through a suicidal episode as well. Most of that backstory comes out in scenes with Remick, who it turns out has interiority, even if Newman and Fonda don’t care. Sarrazin cares. Unfortunately, Gay and Newman (as director) don’t really care. The friendship (and possibly more) between Sarrazin and Remick is the most distinct thing about Sometimes a Great Notion and it goes absolutely nowhere and does absolutely nothing. Of course, even the successful elements in the film don’t really do anything.

Sarrazin starts working with the family, leading to some lengthy expository montage sequences about logging. Sarrazin comes into the picture a little while in, but Newman and Gay wait to look at the logging until he’s arrived. Except he’s presumably already been there and seen what logging looks like. But it’s a fine device. Just a little late for the audience.

The film’s set pieces usually involve logging. Then there’s a scene at the family’s house, often with Fonda yelling at someone, maybe with Remick looking sad, then it’s something else involving logging. Including the loggermen’s picnic, where Newman doesn’t just get to be manly with dirt bikes, there’s also a brawl between striking loggers and the scab family in the coastal surf. Set to the blaring Mancini.

Tensions are slow to rise in Sometimes a Great Notion. When crisis and tragedy strike, even as beautifully executed as Newman (as a director) executes them, they’re not a result of building tension. The movie has to pretend they are such a result, however, because otherwise there’d be no way to end it. And the end of the film, where everything comes together–the results of Fonda’s overbearing approach (at home and professionally), Newman and Sarrazin’s undercooked brotherly turmoil, Remick’s unhappiness, the strike, the neighbors, all of it–it’s a missed opportunity. Newman and Gay have the chance to open up Sometimes and they reject that idea, sticking with the tight focus on Fonda’s family.

The problem with focusing just on Fonda, Newman, and Jaeckel–after the introduction, Sarrazin’s got squat outside his subplot with Remick or opposite the boys–is it requires a lot of demonization to get there. If Fonda and company are jerks, but the heroes, the townspeople have to be not just godawful, but annoyingly godawful. They’re mostly personified in Lee de Broux, who’s always begging Newman to think about the town. Newman blows him off, but somehow manages to have more of an arc with de Broux than he does with Remick. Newman and Remick coexist in scenes, rarely interacting. de Broux, ostensibly, has an effect on him. But not really, because it wouldn’t be manly for Newman to develop as a character. In Sometimes a Great Notion, character development has to be regressive. Sarrazin starts the film a far better character than he finishes it.

The laundry list of problems aside, it’s well-acted. No one’s great, but everyone’s pretty damn good. Fonda’s underutilized as a thoughtless blowhard, but he’s got a couple great scenes. Jaeckel seems really thin–the movie mocks his religiosity, which is interesting and not a great sign–but turns out to have some real depth. Newman’s solid. None of his possible character arcs go anywhere, except with Jaeckel. In that one, he’s great when he needs to be great. And he’s good (and devilishly likable, of course) the rest of the time.

Sarrazin is good and constantly potentially excellent. The material’s just never there for him. Same goes for Remick. Apparently the original cut of the film had them hooking up for sure and it might have helped. Bob Wyman’s cuts are fine, but the narrative structure of the film is incredibly suspect. Nothing in the film suggests it’s going to result in its conclusion–not like foreshadowing, but doing the character development to get people places the script is going to put them. Sarrazin and Remick suffer the most. Newman prefers the dirt bikes and the brawls to the character development. It’s very strange. Like… if it did everything, the dirt bikes, the brawls, and the actual character development, Sometimes a Great Notion might be something special (and three hours long). Instead it doesn’t and isn’t.

Good photography from Richard Moore. Sometimes great. Lots of Sometimes a Great Notion is sometimes great (not Mancini, who’s at least sometimes okay). Newman’s direction is completely competent, patient, and thoughtful but it’s still a shock when he does something ambitious. If he’d applied the same energy as he does in the ambitious moments–which don’t have to be high drama scenes, but can just be when he actually gives Remick a real moment with himself (as an actor)–Sometimes would be a very different, probably better film.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Paul Newman; screenplay by John Gay, based on the novel by Ken Kesey; director of photography, Richard Moore; edited by Bob Wyman; music by Henry Mancini; produced by John Foreman; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Hank), Henry Fonda (Henry), Michael Sarrazin (Leeland), Richard Jaeckel (Joe Ben), Lee Remick (Viv), Linda Lawson (Jan), and Lee de Broux (Willard Eggleston).


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Sid and Nancy (1986, Alex Cox)

It takes a while for anyone in Sid & Nancy to be likable. Even after they’re likable, it’s not like they’re particularly sympathetic. They’re tragic, sure, which is director Cox and cowriter Abbe Wool’s point, but entirely unpleasant to spend time with. The film has a bookend–Sid (Gary Oldman) being taken into police custody for murdering–at that point an unseen–Nancy (Chloe Webb). Oldman makes a visual impression, but kind of gets overshadowed by Cox’s New York cops. They’re all outlandish caricatures, including their costuming, which clashes with Oldman’s punk rock chic.

After the bookend, the action goes back in time to London, with Oldman hanging out with Andrew Schofield (as Sex Pistol’s vocalist Johnny Rotten–the film doesn’t offer any exposition to set up a viewer not at least somewhat familiar with The Sex Pistols) and meeting Webb. Webb’s an American punk rock enthusiast–and heroin addict–with a grating voice and an obnoxious demeanor. But she’s being obnoxious to Oldman and Schofield, so it’s hard to fault her. Oldman’s a moron, arguably–as the film starts–Schofield’s flunky. Meanwhile Schofield comes off as a pretentious poser (needless to say no one thought much of Sid & Nancy’s historical accuracy, not its surviving subjects or even the filmmakers).

But Oldman soon becomes sympathetic to Webb and ends up, after some misadventures, getting high with her. From then on, they’re always together. Much to everyone else’s displeasure; well, not band manager David Hayman, who encourages Oldman’s behavior for the media attention. But much to Schofield’s. Sex is anti-punk so Schofield is anti-sex. Until they’re strung out too long, Webb and Oldman like the sex.

Most of the first half of Sid & Nancy is Oldman and Webb getting high, trying to find money for getting high, getting mad about not finding money to get high (Hayman apparently has Oldman on an allowance without a heroin allotment), Oldman messing up band obligations, Webb pissing off Schofield and others with her demands (which become Oldman’s demands, only he’s way too high most of the time to put much force behind them), Webb and Oldman fighting (usually over drugs, sometimes over the band). The dramatic result comes from the actors in scene more than anything in the script. The intensity, which sometimes means Oldman being almost completely inert, or Webb hitting a new level of annoying, propels the film. As a director, Cox oscillates between indifference and dislike for his protagonists; friction keeps the film in motion.

Until the Sex Pistols go on their U.S. tour–leaving Webb in London–and Cox gets a jumpstart, starting with the first shot of the U.S. tour. He finally finds something cinematic to chew on. The U.S. tour itself, the visual juxtaposing of English punk and cowboy hat wearing Americans, Oldman freaking out on payphone in the middle of Americana… it all becomes visual foreshadowing of the second half. The band breaks up on tour; Oldman and Webb head to Paris for a bit, back to London for a bit, then end up in New York. She becomes his manager. They visit her family. Sid & Nancy gets these moments of absurd hilarity, a pressure release as it tracks its protagonists’ descent. Cox doesn’t glamorize their heroin dependency (he does very little exploring it). As it becomes more and more clear Oldman and Webb can’t survive–they quite clearly can’t take care of themselves–Cox focuses in tighter on the two characters and their relationship. It’s always in a nightmarish setting, but often dreamy.

Oldman’s performance gets better and better as the film progresses. At the start, thanks to the narrative, Schofield overshadows him, then Webb overshadows him. After the tour sequence, when Oldman appears to get some agency, he’s always the narrative’s driving force. If not in scene, than in performance. Even when it’s Webb’s scene, like when they visit her grandparents and extended family and are way too punk rock for the late seventies suburbs. Webb gets to be flashy in those scenes, but they’re all built around Oldman’s eventual contribution.

The second half descent also has the film’s most beautifully edited and realized cinematic sequences, always set to music, sometimes (apparently) diegetic music, sometimes not. Roger Deakins’s photography is always phenomenal, but it’s often phenomenal in its dreariness. In the grand cinema sequences, Deakins never changes the film’s visual tone, he, Cox, and editor David Martin just find a way to hold the moment long enough the intensity burns through the dreary. But not visually, obviously. Cox and Martin are aware, the whole time, how to control the mood (and Deakins’s photography’s affect on it) through length of scene, length of shot. They just don’t start doing much with that knowledge until the second half.

And once Sid & Nancy opens itself ot cinematic splendor, there’s always a subtle impatience until the next sequence. The first half is so light on them (and so frequently narratively unpleasant), it causes some de facto resentment. Cox could’ve done more with the film and didn’t.

Oldman’s great, Webb’s (annoying as all hell and) great, Schofield’s great (regardless of historical accuracy). None of the supporting performances are bad and there’s a large supporting cast, but they just don’t have much to do. Or they don’t have much to do for long. Sometimes getting out faster is better. Sy Richardson, for instance, has a great scene as Oldman and Webb’s methadone caseworker. But it’s a scene. Meanwhile, Hayman’s around so much without any character development, he suffers. Ditto Xander Berkeley (as Oldman and Webb’s New York drug dealer) and Courtney Love. The more scenes they have, the more it matters they’re caricatures.

Transfixing lead performances, excellent direction, great cinematography, sublime music (original score and soundtrack)… Sid & Nancy is a technical marvel. It just should’ve been more of one, which matters since Cox isn’t invested in the narrative.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alex Cox; written by Cox and Abbe Wool; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by David Martin; music by Dan Wool; production designers, Lynda Burbank, J. Rae Fox, and Andrew McAlpine; produced by Eric Fellner; released by The Samuel Goldwyn Company.

Starring Gary Oldman (Sid), Chloe Webb (Nancy), Andrew Schofield (John), David Hayman (Malcolm), Anne Lambton (Linda), Perry Benson (Paul), Tony London (Steve), Debby Bishop (Phoebe), Courtney Love (Gretchen), Xander Berkeley (Bowery Snax), and Sy Richardson (Methadone Caseworker).


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A Child Is Waiting (1963, John Cassavetes)

A Child Is Waiting had all kinds of production clashes between producer Stanley Kramer and director Cassavetes. And, apparently, between stars Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland and director Cassavetes. Kramer even fired Cassavetes during editing; none of those problems come through in the finished product. In fact, the lead actors not liking Cassavetes’s style doesn’t just not come through, it seems counter intiutive. Both Lancaster and Garland are exceptional, often because Cassavetes holds on so long with the shots. He never cuts away from the hard thoughts and realizations the actors need to convey.

The actors always convey them perfectly too.

Lancaster is the director of a state institution for developmentally disabled children. Garland is his newest employee. Lancaster is dedicated and determined, ever consistent in his pedagogical and treatment techniques. Garland just needs a job–and some kind of purpose.

The film doesn’t open with Garland arriving though. It opens with dad Steven Hill abandoning son Bruce Ritchey in the institution driveway. Ritchey latches on to Garland (and Garland to Ritchey) with Lancaster disapproving for multiple reasons. Of course, he’s often too busy to address it. And he’s also a bit of a jerk. He’s caring and even empathetic–watching Lancaster convey that empathy, especially in a terse scene, is glorious–but he’s always on task.

Abby Mann’s script does most of the ground situation exposition during Garland’s weeklong orientation. Child doesn’t do a lot with passage of time, which is sometimes to its benefit, sometimes not. The exposition isn’t just about Ritchey or Lancaster or the film’s institution, it’s about the actual reality of such institutions. A Child Is Waiting is never visually graphic, so Cassavetes has to do a lot with implication. Lancaster later gets to confirm some of those implications in dialogue, but it takes a while before even the dialogue gets graphic. It’s a gradual process, which is both good and bad.

A Child Is Waiting coddles. It coddles the viewer, it coddles Garland. Part of the film is dismantling that coddling, disassembling it, examining it, learning from its mistakes. But it isn’t Garland or Lancaster who benefit from the increasing granularity. It’s Arthur Hill.

Because Arthur Hill is a bad dad. There’s a flashback sequence, neatly tied to Garland learning about Ritchey’s case, showing what lead up to Hill abandoning Ritchey in the first scene. Not everything; a lot gets revealed in dialogue later, but enough. Gena Rowlands plays Ritchey’s mother. The flashback starts in toddler years. Rowlands has the film’s hardest part, but partially because it’s so contrived. She does well in it; it’s just, if the role were better, the film would be much improved.

But the film’s already pretty good. With some great moments. Cassavetes’s direction is excellent. He establishes two extremes, tight one shots of actors in the process of laying themselves bare, intentionally and not, and then sometimes extremely cinematic establishing and closing shots. Cassavetes loves a good crane.

Usually he keeps these two extremes separate. If it’s a big conversation scene, where Lancaster and Garland are trying to figure out if they’re going to respect one another, there’s not a swooping crane shot. But there’s still a perceptable tightening of the narrative distance. Cassavetes moves in to examine truth beyond the artifice. It’s exquisite.

And if the film went entirely in that examination direction, it’d be one thing. If it went entirely in a narrative direction, it’d be another. It’s sort of in the middle. Presumably the Cassavetes filmmaking sensibilities clashing with the Kramer editing ones. But kind of not because there’s still a script.

Hill’s the most important character arc in the film. Rowland should be, but Mann cops out entirely on her. Garland and Lancaster get more time than they should but it’s never wasted. Their performances are always developing, even when the film finally reveals Paul Stewart’s importance. Stewart is the answer man, which is great, because Paul Stewart is great. But it’d have been nice for his importance not to have been a reveal.

Outstanding acting from everyone. Garland’s excellent but Lancaster wins because his part is better. Hill’s good; Cassavetes treats him and Rowland different as far as narrative distance. They’re dulled; Garland and Lancaster are sharp. Rowlands has some strong moments. Ritchey’s really good too. The kids have the hardest parts in the film, obviously.

Lawrence Tierney has a small part as Rowlands’s new husband, which is a trip.

Great music from Ernest Gold, great photography from Joseph LaShelle. Okay production design from Rudolph Sternad–the institution is either in a residential neighborhood or occupies an entire cul-de-sac. It’s frequently confusing but never actually important.

A Child Is Waiting never comprises its cynicism for its hopefulness. Or vice versa. It oscelliates between the two as the characters navigate the same waters. Such good acting, such good directing.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Cassavetes; written by Abby Mann; director of photography, Joseph LaShelle; edited by Gene Fowler Jr. and Robert C. Jones; music by Ernest Gold; production designer, Rudolph Sternad; produced by Stanley Kramer; released by United Artists.

Starring Judy Garland (Jean Hansen), Burt Lancaster (Dr. Matthew Clark), Bruce Ritchey (Reuben Widdicombe), Steven Hill (Ted Widdicombe), Paul Stewart (Goodman), Gloria McGehee (Mattie), Lawrence Tierney (Douglas Benham), and Gena Rowlands (Sophie Widdicombe).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE JUDY GARLAND BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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