Category Archives: Drama

Paris Blues (1961, Martin Ritt)

It’d be easily to blame Paris Blues’s lack of success on the screenplay. With three credited screenwriters and another with the adaptation, there’s literally not enough going on the film to keep it going for the ninety-eight minute runtime. There’s filler, whether it’s a jazz number or a scenic Paris walk, but there’s not enough story. There’s not enough character or there’s not enough story. But director Ritt needs to get some of the blame as well. He’s got enthusiasm, but he’s strangely inert when it comes to medium shots.

Here’s the story–Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll are friends vacationing in Paris from the United States. They meet Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman, who are jazz musician ex-patriates. They pair off, Woodward and Newman, Carroll and Poitier, and they all fall in love. Except Poitier and Newman don’t want to leave Paris. Poitier because it sucks to be a black man in the United States while it’s pretty darn cool in Paris; Newman because… he’s a troubled artist. Or he wants to be a troubled artist. He’s a great trombone player, but he’s not a troubled artist. He’s moody because he’s not.

Newman and Woodward’s romance and its problems are mostly just that moodiness. Newman has a bad day, is crappy to Woodward, who’s crazy about him and wants to dote on him. Meanwhile, Poitier and Carroll are having this great philosophical debate, with their romance taking a back burner to their arguments about Poitier’s refusal to participate in the American Civil Rights movement. Sure, the script never goes too far with their arguments and usually just ends a scene–Woodward and Carroll spend most of their time acquiescing to their men’s mood swings–but it’s something. Carroll and Poitier are playing characters. Newman’s a caricature. Woodward’s stuck pretending to be one, just because the script doesn’t give Newman anything more.

Oh, wait. It gives him Serge Reggiani’s cocaine problem. Newman’s trying to keep him clean because deep down he’s a good guy who cares.

There’s occasionally wonderful direction from Ritt–usually just composition, though Carroll’s performance in the third act, basically just watching Woodward and Newman, is fantastic. It’s a slight, because she should have had more to do, but she’s still developing her character. Everyone else has given up by that time. But Ritt loves trying to do the “real” Paris, cutting between sets and location, with the sets often fantastical but grounded thanks to Christian Matras’s black and white photography.

Weak editing from Roger Dwyre–thanks to Ritt’s messy medium shots and general lack of coverage–doesn’t help things. The Duke Ellington score does help things, however. And it’s awesome to see Louis Armstrong cameo as the whole package artist who Newman admires. Shame there’s not enough on their relationship. Or Newman and Poitier’s. Or Newman and Woodward’s. Or Woodward and Carroll’s. Or Carroll and Poitier’s. About the only relationship getting the appropriate attention is Newman and his French lover, played by Barbara Laage. But even she ends up just harboring slightly veiled hostility towards Woodward instead of actual scenes.

Messy, messy script.

Carroll’s great. Poitier’s great. Newman and Woodward are good, not great. Their material’s too thin to be great. Armstrong’s more cute than good. He’s having a blast acting. Reggiani’s good. Laage’s good. The problem’s not the acting. It’s the script, then Ritt, then the editing. Then, I don’t know, the rear screen projection.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Ritt; screenplay by Jack Sher, Irene Kamp, and Walter Bernstein, adaptation by Lulla Rosenfeld, based on the novel by Harold Flender; director of photography, Christian Matras; edited by Roger Dwyre; music by Duke Ellington; produced by Sam Shaw; released by United Artists.

Starring Paul Newman (Ram Bowen), Sidney Poitier (Eddie Cook), Joanne Woodward (Lillian), Diahann Carroll (Connie), Serge Reggiani (Michel Devigne), Barbara Laage (Marie), and Louis Armstrong (Wild Man Moore).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 90 YEARS OF SIDNEY POITIER BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


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Newlyweds (2011, Edward Burns)

Newlyweds is an exceptional disappointment. Not really because of the concept–upper upper middle class New Yorker whining–or the execution–Burns has his actors speak into the camera, the characters giving interviews–but because it’s always shaking and Burns, as writer and director, always takes the worse path. Newlyweds is a what happens, at least as far as Burns’s script, when you make bad choices. Every single time.

The film opens with titular Newlyweds Burns and Caitlin FitzGerald out to brunch with her harpy sister, Marsha Dietlein, and her sister’s miserable, sexually frustrated (all because of Dietlein) husband, Max Baker. Burns goes out of his way to make Baker as gross as possible, and Dietlein as mean possible. The audience is supposed to be annoyed with Baker’s whining, but they’re supposed to hate Dietlein. She’s such a prude she doesn’t want to listen to Burns’s comic retellings of he and FitzGerald’s problematic sex life (it’s all FitzGerald’s fault, of course).

No slut shaming though, because they’re prudes. All the slut shaming is for Kerry Bishé, who shows up immediately following the introduction, as Burns’s long lost little half sister. Burns, writing himself possibly the shallowest role in the film–he really uses those into camera interviews to sidestep narrative responsibility–and Bishé had a bad dad, which has nothing to do with the film. It’s just there for immediate sympathy (not for Bishé, because she’s always being slut shamed, but for Burns). Bishé’s exceptionally traumatic visit all gets to serve to make Burns into an even better guy. Bishé’s shit out of luck.

Along the way, Baker hooks up with a twenty-three year-old girl (Daniella Pineda), Bishé hooks up with FitzGerald’s ex-husband (Dara Coleman), and chaos ensues. But it does give Burns the chance to write FitzGerald as a harpy in training and himself as a male savior. A sensitive male savior to some degree, but not much of one.

The worst thing is how much FitzGerald and Bishé appear willing to try to make this movie work, Bishé especially. And her performance is a mess. Burns and editor Janet Gaynor cut magic with every other actor in the film–Burns berating Baker is legitimately hilarious, regardless of Burns’s irresponsibility as a writer, and the walking shots (everyone basically walks from scene to scene Newlyweds, in William Rexer’s nicely lighted Manhattan) have great cuts–but Bishé’s editing is awful. Once the script gets around to revealing all her secrets, it’s like the editing is designed to make the audience sympathize less and less.

But, to some degree, everyone’s pretty good. Dietlein has a terrible, shameful part, but she plays the hell out of it. Burns has to double down on her being awful because otherwise it means he’s got the film wrong. And he does have it wrong. FitzGerald’s good, Coleman’s kind of great, Baker’s a cartoon (as opposed to everyone else’s caricatures). Even Burns, as an actor, is really pretty good. He’s mugging a little, but the rest of his cast isn’t, which provides an interesting contrast.

He just can’t seem to figure out how to direct his script, because it’s a bad script. He can make the movie–the actors work, Rexer and Gaynor are great, P.T. Walkey’s music is solid–but he can’t direct this script. There’s no relationships. Burns intentionally starts the film with these characters having no apparent foundation.

I wish Newlyweds were more pedestrian, because then it wouldn’t be such a disappointment. Burns really should’ve worked a little bit harder on the writing, because everything else is there.

I mean, if he’d actually been able to sell Baker as a legitimate character… the sky’s the limit. Though he probably wouldn’t have been able to sell him wearing a golf cap–Burns, not Baker–the whole movie. Did Burns have a golf cap company he was promoting or something?

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, William Rexer; edited by Janet Gaynor; music by P.T. Walkley; produced by Aaron Lubin, Burns, and Rexer; released by Tribeca Film.

Starring Edward Burns (Buzzy), Caitlin FitzGerald (Katie), Kerry Bishé (Linda), Marsha Dietlein (Marsha), Max Baker (Max), Dara Coleman (Dara), Daniella Pineda (Vanessa), and Johnny Solo (Miles).


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Personal Velocity (2002, Rebecca Miller)

Personal Velocity: Three Portraits. Writer and director Miller (adapting her own collection of short stories) ties together three very different stories, each with its own structure, each with its own narrative approach. Velocity is short too–under ninety minutes–so Miller is fast to establish her protagonists. The biggest disconnect, of course, is the narration; John Ventimiglia narrates these three women’s stories. It’s a close, omnipresent narration too. Otherwise, even though men both pervade and infect the film and the protagonists’ lives, the film’s entirely from its female protagonists’ perspectives. Even when the narration is doing fill-in exposition on a male character, it’s always from over the female protagonist’s shoulder. Even if she’s not present. Miller and editor Sabine Hoffman go wild on the summary flashbacks in the second story.

The film starts serious and sincere. Kyra Sedgwick is a thirty-four year-old, low income housewife with three kids and an abusive husband (David Warshofsky). Miller’s even cruel about revealing the abuse. She and editor Hoffman introduce it as a glance, something for the viewer to fixate on or ignore. Michael Rohatyn’s music–maybe the most affecting in the first story–doesn’t slow down, doesn’t change tone. They may be poor but they love each… then it stops and Miller throws the viewer for Personal Velocity’s only “loop.” Less than five minutes into the film, she dismisses the idea she owes the viewer any expectation for the narrative. The rest of Sedgwick’s story, where Sedgwick’s shockingly unlikable, is about dismissing the viewer’s expectations for characters as well now.

Personal Velocity is digital video. It’s very digital video. Ellen Kuras does light the heck out of it, but she and Miller are going for specific level of verisimilitude. The first story takes place in upstate New York. There’s an expectation of Americana and Kuras and Miller make sure it works as an appropriate setting for Sedgwick’s performance. Because Sedgwick doesn’t tear up the film, she slow burns. For the first story, the film is about seeing what Sedgwick’s character is going to do (Velocity is like eighty percent hard character study) and how Sedgwick is going to essay those actions.

When Sedgwick’s story ends, there’s a feeling of “time’s up.” The sturdy first act Miller gives to the segment doesn’t come with a third. She sort of slices into the second act and pulls the narration higher. Sedgwick’s left a bit of a mystery.

Then Parker Posey’s story. It’s the most different in the film. Its narration is very different, its editing is very different. It’s a light romantic drama set in New York City with book editor Posey and her doctoral student husband Tim Guinee. She’s a disappointment to high-powered lawyer dad Ron Leibman, but then she becomes a success. The narration walks Posey through almost every action, every decision. The editing becomes far more creative–freeze frames, both for action and summary, building on the first story’s occasional usage–the pace is different. The tone is different. Different, different, different. Why is the difference important?

Because the differences between first and second stories help set the film up for the third. The second story isn’t just less dangerous than the first one, more erudite, it also changes how Miller’s going to have the protagonists relate to the viewer. Miller changes how she’s portraying these characters from story to story. The second story is the closest the film gets to having fun–Miller, Kuras, and Hoffman are doing slow motion, they’re doing the freeze frames, there’s flashbacks; there’s a lot of enthusiasm. By the end of it, the film has held the viewer’s hand into getting inside Posey’s perspective. Thanks to the filmmaking, thanks to the writing, thanks to Posey, Miller has gone from outside the protagonist’s perspective to inside it and then turned it around. The viewer understands the character’s decision-making without the narration to explain it anymore.

It’s an important change because the third story mostly drops the narration. It also speeds up a lot. Fairuza Balk has a lot of action, not much summary. Some quick flashbacks, but the third story is all about Balk and what’s going on in her head. A fifth of it has got to just be Balk in close-up, thinking. As the viewer gets to know her better, they get to know what she’s thinking too. It’s a very gentle story. Miller keeps all three acts intact, making it different from the first story, but the lack of narration makes it very different from the second story. But Miller’s really just leaving room for reflection in the third story. It’s about the viewer identifying, relating, considering. Miller sort of uses Balk as a guide. The story even starts out in the city and then goes to the country. It’s completely unrelated–narratively–to the first two stories. Yet Miller needs the viewer to make the connections to succeed.

She does, thanks to Balk, thanks to the crew, thanks to David Patrick Kelly, Patti D’Arbanville, and Lou Taylor Pucci. Everything works out really well, which is something since Hoffman changes up the editing style yet again in the third story. These stylistic changes mean Miller and Hoffman have to introduce them and establish them while the stories are already trying to get the protagonists and ground situations set up. Personal Velocity moves very fast, very pragmatically. But only in the pace. Visually, Miller’s an exuberant director. Lots of visuals, lots of imagery. She’s setting up the best angle into her individual protagonist’s stories.

Acting-wise–Balk’s best, then Sedgwick, then Posey, or you could reverse it, or just mix it up and pick one. The viewer’s relationship with each protagonist is so different, they’re all three just phenomenal. Ventimiglia’s narration is great. Supporting cast is all good. They’re not as essential in the first two stories as the third. Though Leo Fitzpatrick does get a touching monologue of sorts.

Personal Velocity’s fantastic. Miller, her cast, her crew, all do awesome work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Rebecca Miller; screenplay by Miller, based on her book; director of photography, Ellen Kuras; edited by Sabine Hoffman; music by Michael Rohatyn; production designer, Judy Becker; produced by Lemore Syvan, Gary Winick, and Alexis Alexanian; released by United Artists.

Starring Kyra Sedgwick (Delia Shunt), Parker Posey (Greta Herskowitz), Fairuza Balk (Paula), Ron Leibman (Avram Herskowitz), Wallace Shawn (Mr. Gelb), David Warshofsky (Kurt Wurtzle), Leo Fitzpatrick (Mylert), Tim Guinee (Lee), Patti D’Arbanville (Celia), Ben Shenkman (Max), Joel de la Fuente (Thavi Matola), Marceline Hugot (Pam), Brian Tarantina (Pete Shunt), Seth Gilliam (Vincent), Lou Taylor Pucci (Kevin), Mara Hobel (Fay), and David Patrick Kelly (Peter); narrated by John Ventimiglia.


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Hidden Figures (2016, Theodore Melfi)

In the first scene of Hidden Figures, the film makes it immediately clear there’s going to be quite a bit of self-awareness. The film is based on the true story of three black women who were instrumental to NASA’s–and the space program’s–success. They’re working at NASA in the early sixties, during segregation, doing harder jobs better than the white guys working at NASA. And there’s an awareness. Janelle Monáe, in the flashiest lead role, gets the least to do, but she does get tasked with offering commentary on the situations at hand.

Director Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, depends a lot on his cast. Nothing in his direction gets any of the scenes done. For example, Melfi underplays it with Taraji P. Henson, who’s the closest thing the film’s got to a protagonist (but the film doesn’t want to have one, which gets to be a problem in the third act). While Monáe, albeit outside work, gets to have a developed relationship with Aldis Hodge (as her less than supportive husband) and second-billed Octavia Spencer gets to have this workplace unpleasantness with Kirsten Dunst, Henson’s got supportive boss Kevin Costner, who she never gets to have a moment with. She’s got wormy supervisor Jim Parsons, who she never gets to have a moment with. There are fill-in moments, but none suggesting Parsons and Costner are people and not caricatures.

It’d be fine if they were caricatures, maybe even appropriate (though Costner’s not–he gets a movie star scene in the film), but if they are caricatures, giving them their little unspoken courtesies to Henson is even more problematic.

Hidden Figures weathers those problems with some very reliable materials–the history is on the film’s side and all three lead performances are great. While Monáe gets to be showy for most of the film, only having to move aside towards the end, when it tries to become a special effects extravaganza thriller just to find a finish, and Spencer’s part is underwritten but convinces the viewer it isn’t, Henson gets the big stuff. And the script, even though she’s got a romance going on outside her saving Costner and Parsons’s butts with math, doesn’t like letting Henson do anything. Monáe does things, Spencer does things, Henson quietly does the math. And she’s exceptional doing the math. Melfi’s best direction is with Henson, simply because he’s just letting the camera watch her performance too.

Technically, the film’s solid without being exceptional. Mandy Walker’s photography is fine, but Melfi’s not ambitious. Maybe the score gets a little much at the end, when Melfi’s tackling the special effects extravaganza with absolutely no personality. Despite some gorgeous production design (courtesy Wynn Thomas), Hidden Figures is oddly absent mise-en-scène.

The ambition is instead with the film itself, presenting these three women completely aware of their exploitation, completely aware of their constraints, and excelling regardless. The sad part of Henson not getting resolution is how well Spencer and Monáe make out with it. Spencer and Dunst’s arc is an uncomfortable, angering one. But it’s a mature way of handling it. The script’s got a narrative arc for that subplot. For Henson? Well, it’s got the Friendship 7.

Not to rag on Melfi too much more, but there’s a difference between acknowledging other films’ handling of the same material without just giving up and pretending to be Apollo 13 for fifteen minutes. It’s his lack of personality. Even Costner’s got some personality, even if it’s nonsensically only for Parsons’s benefit, as they have a moment together.

Hidden Figures is a movie fully aware white guys don’t have to be the leads but it’s the white guys who get that learning moment together. And let’s not even touch on the problematic nature of superhero John Glenn (Glen Powell is fine, it’s just a bland part).

But once you get through the problems and appreciate the film’s accomplishments–and those lead performances–it’s clear Hidden Figures’s success isn’t contingent on a flawless narrative structure. It’s historical, after all, and a positive “real life” moment is hard to resist, but it does distract from its characters. Because even if what was happening in reality was important, in Hidden Figures, it’s Henson, Spencer, and Monáe who are important and deserve the time.

Melfi just doesn’t know how to build tension. Thank goodness he’s got actors who know how to essay it however.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Theodore Melfi; screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly; director of photography, Mandy Walker; edited by Peter Teschner; music by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch; production designer, Wynn Thomas; produced by Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Melfi, Jenno Topping, and Williams; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Goble), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner (Al Harrison), Kirsten Dunst (Mrs. Mitchell), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford), Mahershala Ali (Colonel Jim Johnson), Aldis Hodge (Levi Jackson), and Glen Powell (John Glenn).


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