Category Archives: Drama

Kes (1969, Ken Loach)

Kes has a forecasted structure (so long as you can understand the Yorkshire accents). Teenager David Bradley is about to leave school and head into the workforce. His older brother, played by Freddie Fletcher, works in the coal mines and Bradley knows he doesn’t want that career. They share a bed in their mom’s house. Fletcher bullies both Bradley and their mother (Lynne Perrie). Bradley’s situation at school isn’t any better; he’s on the teachers’ list for bullying and his absentmindedness–and occasional smart mouth–gets him in trouble with classmates.

Bradley doesn’t care much about Fletcher, or his school, or his future–they live on a recently built housing estate and no one has much future anyway. For a while, it’s unclear if Bradley is ever going to care about anything. But then he sees a falcon. And all of a sudden Bradley cares about something.

He wants to fly a falcon.

The film follows Bradley so close it’s procedural at times. How is he going to train the falcon, where can he get that information; Bradley has problems to solve and it turns out–while his life seems haphazard–he actually has the skills, he’s just been lacking the determination.

During the first act and some of the second, director Loach tags along with the wandering Bradley; Kes is a series of beautifully photographed (by Chris Menges) vingettes. They’re chronological, but with the direction, photography, John Cameron’s music, and Roy Watts’s editing, chronology doesn’t much matter. They’re these intense moments as Bradley struggles and achieves, amid what everyone else sees as his failures.

There are quite a few set pieces set at the school–Brian Glover as the terrifying yet comically absurd football coach is a standout–and Loach, Watts, and Cameron do those sequences more thorough than anything else involving Bradley alone. Even though Kes follows Bradley close, there’s still a great deal of narrative distance. The audience gets to observe him but never really gets inside. The set pieces have a momentum and urgency Bradley’s scenes alone, or when he’s flying the falcon, do not. Bradley doesn’t experience urgency.

At least, not until the end, when Loach is able to pull off an immediate transition from character study to something more akin to melodrama. It’s not exactly melodrama (it’d be hard to be melodrama with the estate location, the actors’ raw performances, not to mention the photography and music).

Bradley’s great. Fletcher’s great. Perrie’s great. Glover’s awesome.

THere’s no sentimentality to Kes. It doesn’t exist for the film’s characters and Loach doesn’t add any for the viewer’s comfort.

It’s a technical marvel–Cameron’s music, Menges’s photography, Watt’s editing, Loach’s direction both in terms of composition and directing the actors. The script–from Loach, producer Tony Garrett, and source novel author Barry Hines–has some occasional drag, but it eventually turns out the drag is functional. The third act isn’t easy for anyone. Loach has to break from the vinegette device through expansion while also integrating outstanding forecasted events.

Kes is brilliant. Loach amplifies the intensity as the film progresses, regardless of whether it’s a relaxed scene or a rending one. It’s always a lot, never too much.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ken Loach; screenplay by Barry Hines, Loach, and Tony Garnett, based on a novel by Hines; director of photography, Chris Menges; edited by Roy Watts; music by John Cameron; produced by Garnett; released by United Artists.

Starring David Bradley (Billy), Freddie Fletcher (Jud), Lynne Perrie (Mrs. Casper), Colin Welland (Mr. Farthing), Bob Bowes (Mr. Gryce), Robert Naylor (MacDowell), and Brian Glover (Mr. Sugden).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 4TH ANNUAL BRITISH INVADERS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY TERENCE TOWLES CANOTE OF A SHROUD OF THOUGHTS


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John and Mary (1969, Peter Yates)

Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow are John and Mary, respectively, and they’ve just woken up after spending the night together. They met at a singles bar. Is it going to be a one night stand or is it going to be something more?

Both come with some baggage, though of different varieties. Farrow’s last serious relationship was with a married politican (Michael Tolan); they spent a lot of their time hiding from his family. Hoffman, on the other hand, had a model ex-girlfriend (Sunny Griffin) who moved in with him and wasn’t a good cook. Seeing as Hoffman’s a neat freak and a control freak, it didn’t work out.

John Mortimer’s screenplay uses a handful of techniques to fill in the backstory. For a while, there’s narration from both Hoffman and Farrow–the film takes place over a day, with the narration mostly taking place in the morning–then there are flashbacks (featuring Tolan and Griffin) and daydreams. Director Yates plays with how the flashbacks and daydreams relate to the present action–he and Mortimer end up using them to generate confusion to cause suspense for the viewer, which is effective enough… only it’s a little cheap.

Despite excellent cinematography from Gayne Rescher and production design from John Robert Lloyd–most of the present action takes place in Hoffman’s apartment, with the flashbacks (and daydreams) expanding to New York City–Yates doesn’t have a tempo for any of it. Farrow’s more compelling than Hoffman, but not because of her writing or because of how Yates directs her; she’s sympathetic. From the start, Hoffman’s a jerk. And as the film peels back the onion, he gets jerkier as things progress.

Yates and Mortimer lean the film’s entire weight on the effectiveness of third act reveals, only all those reveals are with the time shift gimmicks. There aren’t any character development reveals. Sure, it’s only a day, but Hoffman and Farrow’s performances don’t gain anything from all the flashback exposition. That particular failing is more Mortimer’s fault than Yates’s, however.

Though if Yates had come up with better–read, any–integration of the film’s various moving parts, he’d probably have been able to compensate.

Instead, John and Mary gets by thanks to Farrow and Hoffman’s performances. She’s got a better character, turns in a better performance. He’s Dustin Hoffman, he’s got some inherent likability–even if the film does sledgehammer away at it, particularly in the first act. When he does get big moments in the script, no one really knows what to do with them. They’re all kind of trite; someone–Yates, Mortimer, or Hoffman–needs to have a handle on the character. None do. Yet Hoffman is still able to get through. He wouldn’t be able to without Farrow.

John and Mary’s not bad. It’s just not successful. Yates is way too blasé about the whole thing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Yates; screenplay by John Mortimer, based on the novel by Mervyn Jones; director of photography, Gayne Rescher; edited by Frank P. Keller; music by Quincy Jones; production designer, John Robert Lloyd; produced by Ben Kadish; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (John), Mia Farrow (Mary), Michael Tolan (James), Sunny Griffin (Ruth), Stanley Beck (Ernest), and Tyne Daly (Hilary).


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Slaughterhouse-Five (1972, George Roy Hill)

When Slaughterhouse-Five is just about World War II, director Hill can handle it. He doesn’t understand the humor, but he can handle it. The script doesn’t understand its own humor, as screenwriter Stephen Geller tries to force his own sense of humor on the source material, but Hill just makes it worse. Especially when he’s got an actor like Ron Leibman going wild with his role.

Leibman gets the joke. Hill doesn’t. Hill has an incredibly big problem with Slaughterhouse-Five, he can’t figure out how to be serious about it. He can be showy about it, but he can’t be serious about it. Not serious enough because he can’t embrace the fantastical nature of the source material. Hill can’t buy in; the script doesn’t help on this one either, but Hill can’t buy in. Like the book says, so it goes.

As a result, the World War II sequences–set to beautiful Glenn Gould music, featuring this desolate Miroslav Ondrícek photography, with Dede Allen’s sublime cuts–oh, and star Michael Sacks walking around like a complete doofus. Apparently, someone important was real set on Sacks as the lead in the film, because there’s no other explanation why they didn’t get someone better. Sacks doesn’t have a part in the script. He’s an enigma. Hill avoids giving him speaking shots in close-up, so he’s mostly just observing. Again, enigma. But since Hill can’t seem to shoot the script, he’s fuddling with the actors too. Sacks gets nothing from Hill. Not a thing. It’s incredible. As soon as the opening titles are done, Hill’s giving the movie away to the supporting cast.

For a while that approach almost works. Handing the movie off to a better actor than Sacks, who spends half the film in World War II and half the film in old age make-up and in the present day. Only some of the present day stuff is flashback too, with its own younger old age make-up.

It’s bad make-up. Ondrícek doesn’t shoot it, or the special effects, well. So it looks like a joke, which certainly doesn’t seem to be what anyone’s going for, but no one’s in much agreement. And Sacks should be pulled in all directions by this indecision; only he’s so bland, he’s unaffected. It’s kind of incredible, the lead actor’s performance unaffected by disaster.

Only in such a good production–save the special effects, Slaughterhouse-Five is a fine production. It’s just not a good movie. Not as a strict adaptation or a loose one. Hill and company end going for something safe, some ironic camp. When the film gets to its abrupt finish, where–theoretically–one might want Sacks to have gone through some kind of change, if not internally than at least in relation to the others or the audience, but no… Hill never lets the film head in that direction. Questions are down that path. Slaughterhouse-Five doesn’t want to raise any of those.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a contemporary adaptation of controversial breakout bestseller, it’s inherently mercenary. Hill doesn’t want to try to mimic the book’s controversies, so he tries to distract from his avoidance of them. Don’t look at the stunning lack of ambition, let’s all laugh at Sharon Gans being reduced to a joke about her weight. Time and again, even though she starts the film stronger than Sacks; the film cuts to their wedding night and Gans immediately overpowers Sacks. And Hill doesn’t seem to care and Sacks doesn’t notice because his performance would have to change, which it doesn’t.

Ever.

So, Gans never gets her due. When Valerie Perrine comes in, Hill and Geller set her up to be some great presence, but she’s not either. Because she’s not set in the World War II stuff. Everything present in Slaughterhouse-Five flops, with the exception of some of Gans’s performance… and nothing else. Nothing else works in the present.

Eugene Roche is great as Sacks’s mentor in World War II. Leibman’s great. The script’s not good but the actors still get through and the plot’s good. It’s just building towards the Dresden bombing. Hill can handle that kind of narrative progression.

It’s all the rest of it he can’t handle.

Sacks doesn’t add anything–he’s not maliciously being bad, he’s just moping. Malice would require something no one is willing to give Sacks–personality.

Some gorgeous filmmaking though. In the World War II parts, usually when not involving lots of dialogue because the dialogue gives Hill problems. Again, not the actors, just Hill. So not the talky parts. Unless it’s Roche.

Slaughterhouse-Five is too professionally competent to be unbearable. It’s just abjectly without ambition.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by George Roy Hill; screenplay by Stephen Geller, based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; director of photography, Miroslav Ondrícek; edited by Dede Allen; music by Glenn Gould; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Paul Monash; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael Sacks (Billy Pilgrim), Ron Leibman (Paul Lazzaro), Eugene Roche (Edgar Derby), Sharon Gans (Valencia Merble Pilgrim), Valerie Perrine (Montana Wildhack), Holly Near (Barbara Pilgrim), Perry King (Robert Pilgrim), and Kevin Conway (Roland Weary).


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Million Dollar Baby (2004, Clint Eastwood)

Million Dollar Baby has a somewhat significant plot twist. Well, it actually has a couple of them. And neither comes with much foreshadowing. A little in Paul Haggis’s script, which director Eastwood visualizes appropriately, but they’re in the background. The film has its larger than life story to worry about–Clint Eastwood as a stogy old boxing trainer taking on a female boxer, played by Hilary Swank. Except she’s not a kid. She’s a grown woman.

The film opens without cast title cards. Immediately, it’s very smooth. Eastwood has a gym, Morgan Freeman runs it for him. There are assorted goings-on at the gym involving the guys training there. It’s a great supporting cast at the gym–Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter, Anthony Mackie–but the gym is initially just where Eastwood hangs out, not where he interacts. So instead Freeman is telling him the goings-on, which does fantastic setup for their relationship throughout the film. Only when Swank arrives does Eastwood get forced to participate and only after prodding from Freeman.

It’s great character development, funny, sweet, sincere. Eastwood’s very careful not to push too hard on any emotional buttons. He makes sure the actors’ emotions are authentic and doesn’t lay it on with the filmmaking. Tom Stern shoots Million Dollar Baby with crispness for the daytime scenes and sharpness with the nighttime. It works as to how the performances come across, how Joel Cox edits them. If it weren’t for how well Haggis’s script works, especially how it integrates Freeman’s narration, Million Dollar Baby might just be one of film’s finest melodramas. Well, if Eastwood–who does a lot in Million Dollar Baby as an actor and a director–wanted to make a melodrama.

He doesn’t though. Instead, he makes this strangely small, while still big, character study of three people and a location and shared experiences. Most of the film takes place in the gym. It’s the touchstone for the characters and the audience. Eastwood and Haggis never wax on about the hopes and dreams of the boxers at the gym–or even Swank’s. It’s not a meditation on the sport of boxing. It’s this devastating human condition piece, with characters revealing depths the entire length of the film, both through scripted dialogue and the actors’ performances. All of the acting is great; Swank is the best, but Eastwood’s the most surprising. You never once get the feeling Eastwood ever has an idea of what he’s going to say to Swank.

Freeman is great too, in the film’s most “of course” sort of way. He gets to be a bit of a mystery and has some fun with it. He narrates and he’s never untrustworthy or anything, he just isn’t telling his own story and it turns out–thanks to Freeman and Haggis–it adds to the film.

Eastwood also did the music, which is sort of unsurprising and also fantastic. The music is perfect. It’s such a strange film, this gentle American Dream rumination, celebration, and condemnation. It’s always sincere, never cynical, never defeatist, but never hopeful either. Eastwood’s filmmaking is focused character study. The music is restrained and minimal.

So many different things are going on in the film at any moment–whether it’s Swank’s Rocky story, Eastwood’s aging one, Freeman’s supporting mostly wry one, Eastwood and Haggis rely heavily on that Freeman narration. He never disappoints. Million Dollar Baby is kind of a love letter; all of a sudden I’m wondering how the script was written with the narration or if it was cut together later.

Eastwood, Swank, and Freeman don’t reinvent the melodrama; they just perfect the melodramatic character study. Ably assisted by Haggis, Stern, and Cox. Million Dollar Baby is phenomenal.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Paul Haggis, based on stories by F.X. Toole; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox; music by Eastwood; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Eastwood, Haggis, Tom Rosenberg, and Albert S. Ruddy; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris), Brían F. O’Byrne (Father Horvak), Jay Baruchel (Danger Barch), Anthony Mackie (Shawrelle Berry), Mike Colter (Big Willie Little), Lucia Rijker (Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman), and Margo Martindale (Earline Fitzgerald).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE PLAY TO THE WHISTLE BLOGATHON HOSTED BY KIRA OF FILM AND TV 101 AND JOSH OF REFFING MOVIES.


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