Category Archives: ★★★

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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Judex (1916, Louis Feuillade)

The first chapter of Judex doesn’t get a chapter title; it’s just the prologue. While the action in the prologue leads directly into the action of the first chapter, throwing young, wealthy widow Yvette Andréyor into despair (financial and emotional), the first titled chapter ends up having less to do with where Judex is going to go than almost any other chapter. It’s like the serial has two prologues. The first focuses on dispicable banker Louis Leubas, the second on how his being dispicable affects his daughter, Andréyor.

And in the background is the mysterious “Judex,” who threatens Leubas to give up half his fortune to atone for his previous sins. The serial introduces one of those sins in the prologue–poor Gaston Michel. Michel was a miller who lost it all because of Leubas’s bad financial practices; he turned to crime and went to prison. His wife died while he was inside and his son disappeared. Just out of prison, he visits Leubas, asking for help in finding his son. Leubas sends him off. Then has his driver run him over.

Michel’s not dead, which isn’t clear until the second episode (maybe third). But Leubas is a bad guy. Always has been. His additional wealth and respectability haven’t changed him. In fact, one of Judex’s many, glorious subplots involves Leubas’s history.

Because the most compelling thing about Judex isn’t René Cresté’s ostensibly dark avenger, it’s the things going on in the story around it. Judex doesn’t actually need Judex to be compelling. It needs Cresté, sure, but Cresté’s time in the black cape and hat are somewhat limited. Very limited as the story progresses and he discovers he has to be present for Andréyor not just as a protector, but as a man. He’s in love. Desperately.

Oh, yeah, there’s the complication. Cresté can’t carry out his family’s revenge on Leubas because he’s fallen for Andréyor. There are a lot of other complications, like Musidora, who’s first after Leubas’s money, then after Andréyor’s. Musidora has a couple partners in the film, main guy Jean Devalde (who has a secret, but important, past) and then Andréyor’s former fiance, Georges Flateau. Flateau dumps Andréyor after she loses her fortune. But then once there’s a chance to recover some of it, he gradutes from mercenary marriage to kidnapping and attempted murder.

Musidora doesn’t have much in the way of redeemable traits (none, really), but she still manages to be a lot more likable than Flateau. Or Devalde. Because Musidora’s pretty smart, especially compared to Cresté, who seemingly has come up with his one plan, executed it, said he can do more, but really isn’t prepared. He’s got an awesome pack of dogs who can track kidnapping victims and knock down bad guys, but they’re only good for so much. When it comes to kidnapping victims in high places, for example, Cresté’s got to find a kid he can put in danger to help get the job done.

The kid is often René Poyen. He’s one of Judex’s truer heroes. He befriends Andréyor’s son, Olinda Mano, who she’s had to give up while she lives in poverty as a piano teacher. Andréyor’s plans don’t make a lot of sense, but seeing as how she can’t make it two chapters without people wanting to kidnap her, it also makes sense she can’t get them figured out.

For much of the serial, Andréyor is a damsel in distress. At least three major times. Sometimes Cresté rescues her, sometimes someone else rescues her. After her turn as the main target of Musidora and company, their attention goes to Mano, presumably because a kid is easier to grab. Musidora is able to track Andréyor and Mano because Cresté is terrible at planning.

Just as many times as Andréyor’s in danger–maybe more–Cresté and company (usually Édouard Mathé as his brother, though eventually Michel joins the team) screw something up. They operate on a strict forgive and forget policy. So even though goofy and adorable private investigator Marcel Lévesque at one point works with Musidora, helping set up on an attempt on Andréyor’s life no less, team Judex is okay with him once he comes around.

It bits them in the ass with one of the other characters, who isn’t as goofy, adorable, or honorable as Lévesque turns out to be. Lévesque also has a great subplot with Poyen.

Is Cresté more effective as the lovestruck suitor who just happens to be holding his desired’s father in captivity under strick orders from his mother to execute the man? Well, sure. It’s hard to imagine how Cresté was even able to set his plan in motion in the first place (offscreen in the prologue and before). He must have gotten a lot of pep talks from Mathé, whose role on Team Judex is split between logistics, babysitting, and pep talks. Whenever it’s time for action, Cresté perks up from his romantic melancholia, but otherwise Mathé’s doing most of the work.

And Cresté’s efforts as a hero are never quite as dynamic as some of the other heroisms on display. Poyen really comes through, a street urchin with a heart of gold, a solid work ethic, and the right temperment to protect pal Mano. There’s also the tragically uncreditted Lily Deligny, who shows up sort of as a deux es machina in the end chapters. She’s a swimmer. It’s important because Cresté and his family are guarding Andréyor on their estate on the Mediterreanan. There Cresté hopes to make Andréyor fall in love with him, even though he’s running two big deceptions on her, not to mention having her mentally incapacitated father on a nearby estate. Team Judex can’t figure out what to do with him since they aren’t going to kill him. Judex mare, Yvonne Dario, eventually comes up with a solution, which works because it’s a serial, but the film major cops out on the dramatic ramifications (and possibilites) of that solution.

While there’s a lot of danger in Judex, there’s not a lot of death. Neither Musidora or Devalde want to actually kill anyone. They keep trying to get someone else to do it–their plans for Andréyor are always extremely long game, like get her sick and then deny her medical treatment so she dies from exposure–they can never do it themselves. The serial, thanks to the performances and Feuillade, never feels like it isn’t dangerous. At least, not when Musidora is involved. Some of the other characters you know aren’t going to be too dangerous.

The chapters vary in length. Thirty-five minutes down to nine. The prologue’s long, the epilogue’s very, very short. They mostly move well. After the halfway point–the seventh chapter, when mama Judex Dario gets introduced–there’s not a lot of time for anything but action. Until that point, there’s a lot more with the emotionality of the characters. Cresté just mopes, but everyone else has visualized internal emotions. Those sequences are some of Feuillade’s flashier filmmaking. He also really likes the ruins where Cresté has the Judex cave.

Because it turns out, although Cresté wants Leubas to atone for his financial crimes in general, Leubas didn’t financially ruin Cresté’s family. They’re rich as all hell. He’s a self-funded adventurer, after all. The serial starts being very anti-capitalist, it ends being blah on capitalism (imagine being so poor you have to work, even if you’re a wealthy banker) and big on blue blood. It actually explains a lot about Cresté’s actions. He and Mathé are just playing.

But it doesn’t matter because Musidora’s dangerous and Cresté’s comprised. Even if they’re foppish heroes, they’re the heroes just the same.

The best performances are Lévesque and Poyen. Musidora’s quite good. Andréyor’s good, but better when she’s the damsel in distress than Cresté’s ward (whether she knows he’s her guardian or not). Her character development pretty much stops once she gets Dano back (and gets to be rich again).

Devalde’s good. His character arc throughout is a little disappointing. Feuillade and co-writer Arthur Bernède go out of their way to be sympathetic to just about everyone except Devalde. Dario’s good. Especially considering she’s in a bunch of old age makeup.

And Cresté’s all right. Once he gets to just be a fool in love–around Andréyor, not from afar (or in disguise)–he gets a lot better.

Musidora’s threats and plots serve for good inciting actions, but the character development because of those experiences is what makes Judex work. It’s the drama surrounding the characters, not the action. Because while Musidora’s good at the action, Cresté’s not. He’s just not on the ball. Once he uses up the dog trick, he’s got nothing. Well, nothing but money, as it turns out.

Feuillade’s direction is good. He has some rather jarring jump cuts the first few chapters, but they go away. He seems more comfortable shooting the South of France scenes. They’re not as visually dynamic as the stuff around the Judex Cave (it’s underneath ancient ruins), but the characters have enough room in luxury. And together. So much of Judex is just about making sure a reuniting sticks.

It’s a good serial. Very rarely boring, usually quite the opposite. You get to miss the characters by the end–when there are just too many for everyone’s subplot to get attention each chapter. Though Judex does sort of leave Mathé behind once Dario shows up. It doesn’t seem fair since he’s been keeping Cresté on task for the first half of the serial.

Judex works out though. Because–not in spite of–Cresté being a big softie under all his dashing, dark avenger trappings. The same thing is true of the serial itself. Feuillade’s embracing of sentimentality and emotional sincerity is what makes the serial so special.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Louis Feuillade; written by Arthur Bernède and Feuillade; directors of photography, André Glatti and Léon Klausse; production designer, Robert-Jules Garnier; released by Gaumont.

Starring René Cresté (Judex), Yvette Andréyor (Jacqueline Aubry), Musidora (Diana Monti), Louis Leubas (Favraux), Marcel Lévesque (Cocantin), Jean Devalde (Robert Moralés), Édouard Mathé (Roger de Tremeuse), Olinda Mano (Jean), René Poyen (The Licorice Kid), Gaston Michel (Pierre Kerjean), Lily Deligny (Miss Daisy Torp), Juliette Clarens (Gisèle), Georges Flateau (Vicomte de la Rochefontaine), and Yvonne Dario (Comtesse de Tremeuse).


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Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)

Lifeboat never feels stagy, which is one of the film’s greatest successes. The entire thing takes place in a single lifeboat, with director Hitchcock not doing many medium or long shots of the lifeboat exterior. All the action is with the actors, Hitchcock using distinctive composition–Glen MacWilliams’s glorious photography helping quite a bit, of course–to work up a visual rhythm. Jo Swerling’s screenplay is mostly dialogue, but the narrative rhythm isn’t in the cadence of the lines or even in what character gets what material, it’s in the characters themselves. The script’s narrative focusing is its greatest strength and greatest asset to the film.

Because there’s only so much the characters in Lifeboat can do to influence events. They survive the ship’s sinking by chance, they survive on the lifeboat by chance. There is a certain predictability to the film and the characters. But then the first act does everything to establish them as not being predictable. Lifeboat’s biggest twist–maybe only twist–is one of the characters not being predictable. Hitchcock and Swerling aren’t so much fooling the audience as not even trying to give them enough information.

There’s almost no minutiae in Lifeboat. There’s sometimes expository dialogue covering what’s happened offscreen since a scene transition, but Hitchcock and Swerling have zero interest in showing the characters’ daily chores to maintain on the lifeboat. Lifeboat isn’t about minutiae, it’s about big ideas and as big of character drama as Hitchcock can do in confined space.

The survivors on the lifeboat are a swath of Allied civilians. Tallulah Bankhead is a celebrity columnist, John Hodiak is one of the crew, so are William Bendix, Hume Cronyn, and Canada Lee. Mary Anderson’s a nurse. Henry Hull’s a millionaire industrialist. Heather Angel’s British and heading back from New York. And Walter Slezak is the Nazi sailor they rescue.

One of the script’s nicest tricks is having Hodiak, Bendix, Cronyn, and Lee all have an indeterminately long history together. They’ve known each other for years. Helps when revealing character backstory. It can come up in conversation naturally. Bankhead and Hull know each other too. And then it turns out Bankhead speaks German and offers Slezak a sympathetic ear.

Lifeboat keeps petty in-fighting to a minimum. The characters are too desperate to be petty (even when it seems like they might be acting so). And everyone gets a nice arc. Nine characters, nine separate arcs (with some overlapping); all in ninety-six minutes. Hitchcock and Swerling seem to know they can only last in such a confined space for so long.

The big dramatic in-fighting scenes–the film’s set pieces (an argument is more compelling than a storm hitting the boat)–are fantastic. Sometimes character development points with intersect in these scenes. Eventually there’s some pairing off amongst the survivors and it changes how things play, not just to the audience, but to the other characters. And never stagy.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to as much as Hitchcock and Swerling might hope. The ending is large scale action, followed immediately by a large scale morality message. Because Lifeboat is about big ideas, particularly in the treatment of Nazi Slezak–Hodiak, Bendix, and Cronyn are on one side, Bankhead and Hull are on the others. It’s the snobs versus the slobs. Hodiak has some great scenes arguing with the snobs at the beginning. And it turns out to develop into a lot more.

Anderson, Lee, and Angel are basically on the sidelines during the big idea scenes. There’s even some commentary about why they’re on the sidelines, when Lifeboat still seems a lot more ambitious in its progressive presentation of reality than it turns out to be. There are some great approaches and details in the film, but they’re not the point. With nine characters and ninety-six minutes–and maybe four bigger parts–the supporting material needs to be good. Appearing ambitious and being at least somewhat successful makes a lot of impression.

And it sometimes gives the actors great material.

Bankhead and Hodiak are the stars. Bendix and Hull are the main support. Slezak next. Then everyone else. Though Cronyn (doing a totally fine but peculiar English accent) does go sweet on Anderson, which gives them a little more time.

Bankhead’s good. Her character’s wobbly at times–particularly at the end–but Bankhead’s good enough to cover. Hodiak’s similiar, though it’s his dialogue–he has some big speeches–to wobble. Hitchcock doesn’t direct for the performance and the dialogue sometimes needs that touch. Bendix is awesome, but his part’s not great. Hull’s fine. He always comes through. Same with Slezak.

More sympathetic direction would probably have helped Hull. It’s the big idea speeches. Hitchcock can’t figure out how to do them. They need to be rousing and patriotic while still vaguely humanist and he sort of just pauses for them. He makes up for it in the next scene, usually with some great overlapping dialogue shots, but Lifeboat’s a propaganda picture. Hitchcock tries to ignore the propaganda instead of accepting it.

The uneven tone hurts the end of the film, which has already been through a way too rushed second-to-third act transition.

Excellent direction from Hitchcock, great photography, great performances. Fine script. Lifeboat’s about as good as a straight propaganda picture can get.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Jo Swerling, based on a story by John Steinbeck; director of photography, Glen MacWilliams; edited by Dorothy Spencer, music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Kenneth Macgowan; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Tallulah Bankhead (Connie Porter), John Hodiak (John Kovac), Henry Hull (Charles J. Rittenhouse), Walter Slezak (Willi), Hume Cronyn (Stanley Garrett), Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie), Canada Lee (Joe Spencer), Heather Angel (Mrs. Higley), and William Bendix (Gus Smith).


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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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