Category Archives: Drama

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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Touched with Fire (2015, Paul Dalio)

Somewhere early in Touched with Fire’s third act, it becomes clear there’s not going to be any performance potential from leads Luke Kirby and Katie Holmes. The movie doesn’t really want to be about them. Director (and writer) Dalio skips all the character development, leaving Holmes dulled and Kirby perpetually in between a Zach Braff impression and a Casey Affleck one.

Same goes for “special guest stars”–but in the low budget sense, not the late seventies melodrama one–Bruce Altman, Griffin Dunne, and Christine Lahti. While Dalio’s script shafts them all, it’s unequal. Altman has the smallest part, which is kind of best given Dunne and Lahti don’t get any character development either. They get a lot of dramatic setup for character development; once again, Dalio’s not interested.

In fact, Dalio’s never interested in anything long enough in Touched With Fire for it to stick.

Holmes and Kirby are bipolar young adults who just happen to be in their mid-thirties. They look good for it, but they still clearly are too old to have so few life experiences. They live in New York City, both supported by their parents. Dunne is Kirby’s dad, Lahti and Altman are Holmes’s parents. The film introduces the principals (including Dunne and Lahti), then contrives a way to get Kirby and Holmes together. They’re both committed, Kirby because of criminal behavior, Holmes because the doctor cons her into it.

Maryann Urbano is great as the doctor. It’s also one of the better written roles in Dalio’s script; Urbano’s behavior and actions towards Kirby and Holmes are consistent. No one else is ever consistent. They sway with the changing winds of scene need.

So after not liking one another, Kirby and Holmes soon bond over poetry. Holmes is formerly successful (and published) poet–the timeline on when is unclear–and Kirby is a rap poet. Though Dalio never gets into what he means by rap poetry. It’s associative rhyming. When the film starts, Kirby is popular at his performances, Holmes is not.

Kirby thinks being bipolar informs his creativity, Holmes… well, actually, it’s never clear what Holmes thinks. Because–even though the film shows her writing poetry a lot–her feelings about it are never even acknowledged. Unless it’s one of the scenes where Kirby’s telling her how she doesn’t feel about it. Those scenes are in that ramshackle third act.

Anyway. Kirby and Holmes fall in love (while committed) but circumstances separate them. When they do get back together, determined to embrace the creative benefits of being bipolar, the film turns into a series of montages. It already had a bunch of montages while they were meeting in the middle of the night, but there was at least drama there. They poison an attendant. They battle Urbano. Their respective parents dismiss them. There’s drama.

Not in the later montages. In those montages, as the film has already shown the dangers of their mania, have some drama as they get closer and closer to the disaster, but not really. Because all the self-destructive character traits Kirby exhibited before meeting Holmes? Gone. Does Dalio explore the change? Nope. It doesn’t really matter for Holmes because she’s now entirely defined by her relationship with her parents. Even though Dunne’s always along to disappoint Kirby, the scenes anchor around Lahti and Altman.

There’s also the film itself. It’s entitled Touched with Fire because of a book called Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison. Who appears in the film as herself, for a rather disappointing sequence. But the book is about famous creatives through history who were manic-depressive. Byron, Van Gogh (lots of Starry Night references in the film too), and many others. Kirby sees himself in that lot, mostly in the first and third acts.

Only Touched with Fire, the movie, never explores the characters’ creativity. Holmes doesn’t grow as a poet because of her relationship with Kirby. In fact, he controls her work. Or he doesn’t. It’s unclear. Because Dalio isn’t interested. So it’s a film about being creative without anything to say about actual creativity. Montages of being silly in public don’t cover it.

Both leads are disappointing. More Kirby because he’s got the bigger part. Dalio doesn’t give it anywhere to go. Holmes has somewhere to go–three times–and Dalio stays as far away from her as he can during them. Dunne and Lahti are great. More Dunne because Lahti gets some of the worst inconsistent behavior scenes. Altman’s fine. He’s got absolutely nothing to do except be present and Bruce Altman.

Dalio’s strength as a director in his ability to execute the production on its limited budget. His composition’s never terrible but sometimes predictable and never exciting. It’s boring without being tedious. He doesn’t direct the actors, which is a problem. The leads both need it. His musical score’s damned good though.

Editing and cinematography are both thoroughly competent. Better editing might’ve done wonders.

Touched with Fire has all sorts of interesting places to go and goes none of them. It frequently pretends the opportunities aren’t even there. And there was no reason for it to fall apart in the third act.

Watching Touched with Fire, you keep wanting it to get better or be better or do the right thing. It rarely does. And never when it counts.

1/4

CREDITS

Written, edited, and directed by Paul Dalio; directors of photography, Kristina Nikolova Dalio and Alexander Stanishev; music by Dalio; production designer, Kay Lee; produced by Jeremy Alter, Nikolova Dalio, and Jason Sokoloff; released by Roadside Attractions.

Starring Luke Kirby (Marco), Katie Holmes (Carla), Christine Lahti (Sara), Griffin Dunne (George), Maryann Urbano (Dr. Strinsky), Bruce Altman (Donald), Daniel Gerroll (Dr. Lyon), and Kay Redfield Jamison (Kay Jamison).


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The Florida Project (2017, Sean Baker)

The Florida Project turns out to be a lot about perspective. Director Baker establishes three different perspectives–six-year-old Brooklynn Prince, her mom (Bria Vinaite), and the manager of the motel where they live (William Dafoe). The film takes place over a summer, as Prince makes new friends and loses old ones. The kids have numerous adventures, occasionally sweet, sometimes rude, sometimes dangerous, often funny. Vinaite has recently lost her job as a stripper when the movie starts, something which Baker only addresses from Prince’s perspective. Because it doesn’t seem important to Prince’s story.

And for most of the film, it isn’t. Most of Florida Project is split between Prince and company’s adventures and how much trouble they cause for Dafoe. But it’s not too much trouble because Dafoe’s really a big softy. He’s caring and compassionate and trapped in a cage of his own making. He’s trying to do what’s right.

Each of Prince’s friends has a somewhat different living situation as far as parents or guardians go, but they all live in the same motel or nearby. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch do great with getting in the exposition about how it works, living in motels (i.e. occupancy laws, dining, rent). There’s a lot of visual emphasis on the green paradise of a setting. Baker and photographer Alexis Zabe set these characters, with their often dangerous problems, against this idyllic backdrop.

It’s gorgeous but leads to another problem of perspective; do they characters acknowledge the beauty around them? For a while it seems like Dafoe might. Unfortunately, as the film enters its second half and focuses more on Vinaite and Prince together, its treatment of Dafoe changes. It’s no longer watching him–from Prince’s perspective–but giving him a scene here or there, just to keep him present. He even gets an utterly uncooked subplot involving Caleb Landry Jones. For two scenes. With no pay-off. Or even affect on Dafoe’s arc.

The second half turns out to be rife with character revelations, as Vinaite’s friendship with fellow mom Mela Murder turns out to be a bait and switch as far as plot progression expectations. It’s too bad, as Murder made Vinaite a lot less obnoxious (not in a bad way though) in her plotline. Instead, Vinaite and Prince’s plotlines pretty much join–Prince’s adventures, while more visually glorious, becoming subplot–and it’s mostly a reveal of Vinaite. Turns out by sticking with Prince, Baker was really skirting away from a lot of truth about mom Vinaite. Prince never figures it out, which then changes the narrative distance as far as she and the friends go. And it turns out Dafoe’s unreliable too.

None of it’s bad. Baker isn’t sneaky or tricky in the filmmaking. The scenes are always right on. They just maybe aren’t the right scenes for where the movie ends up going. A lack of information is built into how the movie works–it’s from a six-year-old’s perspective, sometimes including height–and the composition, the photography, the editing, and Lorne Balfe’s music captivate throughout. Baker just doesn’t mix in the the captivating and epical action well. Especially not since he has this final intellectual reveal he really could’ve worked in sooner and gotten greater effect.

Because, of course, it turns out even though the movie sticks with Prince, she’s got her own relevation offscreen things going on.

So Florida Project is lyrical until it’s epical. It does better with the lyrical because it hasn’t been doing the work to be epical. Beautiful filmmaking can only cover so much.

Lots of great acting. Dafoe’s phenomenal, even if he never gets a pay-off. Though no one gets a pay-off; maybe Vinaite. But even hers is problematic. She’s good. She’d probably be better if Baker defined the character better in the first act. Instead of having development, she has character revelation. A minor tweak of focus would’ve helped a bunch.

The kids are awesome. Prince, Christopher Rivera, Valeria Cotto, Aiden Malik. Rivera plays Murder’s son and is best friend #1. Cotto becomes best friend #2. Malik is sort of background. Baker knows how to direct the kids to get some amazing moments. Even when they’re just goofing off.

In the supporting roles, Murder is good but eventually undercooked. She’s not reliable either. Josie Olivo is great in a smaller part as Cotto’s grandmother and maybe the closest thing to a good role model Vinaite encounters.

The film’s a technical marvel. Interiors, exteriors, long shots, close-ups, Zabe’s photography is always perfect. Same goes for Baker’s cutting. Balfe’s score is perfect.

The Florida Project is nearly great. Instead, it’s almost great. With some exceptional performances, direction, and technical aspects.

3

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Sean Baker; written by Baker and Chris Bergoch; director of photography, Alexis Zabe; music by Lorne Balfe; production designer, Stephonik Youth; produced by Baker, Bergoch, Kevin Chinoy, Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, Francesca Silvestri, Shih-Ching Tsou; released by A24.

Starring Brooklynn Prince (Moonee), Bria Vinaite (Halley), Willem Dafoe (Bobby), Valeria Cotto (Jancey), Christopher Rivera (Scooty), Mela Murder (Ashley), Aiden Malik (Dicky), Caleb Landry Jones (Jack), Josie Olivo (Stacy).


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Hoosiers (1986, David Anspaugh)

Hoosiers rouses. It rouses through a perfectly measured combination of narrative, editing, composition and photography, and music. In that order, least to greatest. There’s no way to discount Jerry Goldsmith’s score and the importance of his music during the basketball game montages. They’d be beautifully cut and vividly photographed, but they wouldn’t rouse without that Goldsmith music. In the second half of the film, the music replaces Gene Hackman as the star presence. The film extends its narrative distance from the cast (Hackman least, but still Hackman) to emphasis the narrative effectiveness of montage. And it works. Hoosiers rouses.

The almost exactly halfway adjustment in narrative distance is a smooth one. The film has been focusing on Hackman’s acclamation to a new job in a new town and then that plot comes to a close. Then it’s time for basketball. The film–and ostensibly Hackman–have been waiting for it to be basketball time. The distractions are gone; director Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo have precisely plotted out all the subplot resolutions. Hoosiers isn’t a particularly short film. It’s six minutes shy of two hours so halfway is about an hour; meaning the second half, the mostly basketball half, is an hour too.

It’s particularly impressive since there’s zero exposition about what’s going to happen in the second half, based on Indiana state high school basketball playoff systems from the mid-twentieth century. Pizzo’s narrative logic for Hoosiers isn’t something the audience needs to worry about. First, they’ve got to worry about Hackman. Then, they’ve got to watch some basketball.

The film opens with Hackman arriving in a (very) small Indiana town. Old pal and now school principal Sheb Wooley has hired Hackman to coach basketball (and teach civics, which doesn’t turn out to be a subplot). The townsfolk are suspicious of outsiders and don’t want Hackman coaching. They want Chelcie Ross, whose part is small but it’s one of those excellent risible asshat Chelcie Ross performances.

Barbara Hershey is a fellow teacher. She thinks Hackman is just going to try to get her erstwhile ward, Maris Valainis, to play basketball again. She doesn’t want Valainis to play (the previous coach died–before the movie starts–and it profoundly affects Valainis). Hershey also doesn’t like basketball, which gets more attention than Valainis’s arc. He’s present a lot, but he’s an enigma. Or he would be an enigma, if the movie were interested in the interiority of its characters. Hoosiers demands they have interiority, either through performance or filmic presentation (though none of the performances in the film, even from the amateur cast members, are bad–Anspaugh is outstanding with his actors). It just doesn’t want to show that interiority. It’s not interested.

Not while there’s basketball to be played.

Though Hershey’s basketball arc could be seen as the audience’s basketball arc. During one of their early bickering scenes, Hackman tries to get Hershey to understand the magic of the game. Hoosiers, in its second half, creates that magic (for Hershey and the audience).

So the first half is Hackman’s problems. The ones he makes for himself, the ones the townsfolk make for him. The one the basketball team makes for him; specifically the players. Even though the players are in most of the movie, only two of them have actual subplots. Valainis’s gets left offscreen because he’s an enigma (he and guardian Hershey don’t even share a shot together). David Neidorf gets one as an extension of Dennis Hopper’s subplot. Hopper’s the former high school basketball star now town drunk who Hackman tries to reform.

Some of the other players get little things. Steve Hollar is the one who pisses Hackman off the most frequently. Scott Summers is the religious one who Hackman eventually finds lovable–Hoosiers has its Americana, but it keeps it at a certain distance. Like it’s pretty and all but don’t get it too close. There’s probably some cut material with Hackman on that arc (Anspaugh and Pizzo’s version runs an hour longer), but what’s left is a nice recurring theme in the montage sequences.

The film ably pivots between its various pacing speeds. Once it gets comfortable relying on the montages, Hoosiers stays with them. It slows down a bit for the Hackman and Hershey subplot, which is nicely, gently done. Ditto the Hopper redemption slash recovery arc. The film slows down for those two. Otherwise, it’s got to fit in those montages.

Hopper’s great. Hershey’s good. Hackman’s great. Hackman gets the least showy role in the entire film. Even when it turns out he likes to get into screaming matches with referees, he’s still not showy. The film’s rising actions are muted; Hoosiers’s narrative distance is something else.

The production is outstanding. Carroll Timothy O’Meara’s cutting, Fred Murphy’s photography, David Nichols’s production design. All phenomenal.

Hoosiers is a fantastic film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Anspaugh; written by Angelo Pizzo; director of photography, Fred Murphy; edited by Carroll Timothy O’Meara; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, David Nichols; produced by Carter DeHaven and Pizzo; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Gene Hackman (Norman Dale), Barbara Hershey (Myra Fleener), Dennis Hopper (Shooter Flatch), Maris Valainis (Jimmy Chitwood), David Neidorf (Everett Flatch), Brad Long (Buddy Walker), Steve Hollar (Rade Butcher), Fern Persons (Opal Fleener), Brad Boyle (Whit Butcher), Wade Schenck (Ollie McLellan), Kent Poole (Merle Webb), Scott Summers (Strap Purl), Chelcie Ross (George Walker), and Sheb Wooley (Cletus Summers).


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