Tag Archives: Dinah Manoff

Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford)

Two really big things to talk about with Ordinary People. The technical filmmaking–John Bailey’s beautiful, muted photography, Jeff Kanew’s actually peerless editing, Redford’s direction in general–and then Timothy Hutton’s performance, his place in the film, Redford’s direction of Hutton in particular. I just as easily could’ve included the treatment of Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore as Hutton’s parents in that list, but Ordinary People is a lot to talk about, a lot to think about and my ambitions are realistic here.

To start–Bailey’s photography, because it has the least to do with how the film needles the viewer. It’s gentle, but always realistic. Bailey’s very careful about the depth, the reality of the locations and how the characters interact with them. When Bailey does break–for a flashback, for instance–the reality has to break a little too. In some ways, the stylized flashbacks are more realistic because they’re from a character’s perspective. The rest of the film is objectively presented, with Bailey’s gently lush photography a comfort.

Redford needs the viewer comfortable, because he wants the viewer to pay attention. To think. There are no explosive scenes in Ordinary People. There are noisy scenes, but it’s not about the noise, it’s not even about how things get noisy. The noisy scenes are about what that noise does to people. But there are maybe three or four noisy scenes in the film. The rest of the time–most of the run time–Redford and editor Kanew are priming the viewer to pay attention.

Ordinary People changes gears in the third act, widening its ambitions. What starts as Hutton’s story becomes much bigger as Hutton is able to emerge from his shell. Hutton gives an exceptional performance, but Redford directs one too. Hutton is both the subject–how characters look at him instructs the viewer how to consider him–and the viewer’s entry into the film, always simultaneously. At the same time, the film isn’t reductive. It’s not a seventeen year-old’s look at his troubled family. It’s often about a seventeen year-old looking at his troubled family, but it’s about a lot more. Screenwriter Alvin Sargent deftly moves between plot lines. The film has this simple narrative structure; Sargent and Redford set it up, trust the viewer to remember it, move on with the film. Redford wants the viewer to get it. They make it brilliantly simple.

Great performances from all the main actors (Hutton, Sutherland, Moore, Judd Hirsch as Hutton’s therapist). Hirsch has the smallest part, but his contributions are essential. Much like Bailey’s photography, Hirsch–tied entirely to one setting–provides a comfort to the viewer, a familiar. Moore has the film’s most difficult role. Sutherland has some amazing moments. Very strong supporting turn from Elizabeth McGovern as Hutton’s love interest. M. Emmet Walsh is a complete asshole as Hutton’s coach, which is a compliment.

Anyway, Ordinary People is a masterpiece.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Redford; screenplay by Alvin Sargent, based on the novel by Judith Guest; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by Jeff Kanew; produced by Ronald L. Schwary; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Timothy Hutton (Conrad), Donald Sutherland (Calvin), Mary Tyler Moore (Beth), Judd Hirsch (Berger), Elizabeth McGovern (Jeannine), Dinah Manoff (Karen), James Sikking (Ray), Fredric Lehne (Lazenby) and M. Emmet Walsh (Salan).


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Child’s Play (1988, Tom Holland)

Child’s Play barely makes any sense. Or maybe some of it does, but there’s a big voodoo component and it gets used as a crutch for the more fantastical elements (with its own problems with rationality). But the film opens with a shootout in downtown Chicago–Child’s Play uses its Chicago locations very well, never excessive–between cop Chris Sarandon and serial killer Brad Dourif. Serial killer Dourif who has a sidekick and doesn’t use a gun to kill his victims. My suspension of disbelief can go for the possessed doll out to kill those who wronged him, but a serial killer with a sidekick? It’s a more interesting story than a killer doll.

But the film also has some problems deciding what way it wants to go. The script can’t decide if it wants to convince the audience–or try to convince the audience–six year-old Alex Vincent has snapped and is talking to his doll and killing people… or if it’s the doll. The indecision doesn’t last long, but it does come after the rather literal opening where Dourif recites a spell while touching the doll. The trailer never has the money shot (the animated doll), but it certainly goes far towards suggesting it… so maybe theater-goers in 1988 knew what to expect. Given four sequels, even though I’d never seen the film before, it was hard to imagine it could have been anything but the doll.

The killer doll is maybe not the most ludicrous idea for a slasher movie, but Child’s Play isn’t really a slasher movie. The thriller elements play a lot more–down to the out-of-control speeding car going through Chicago–and Holland never lets Dourif (voicing the doll) go over the top, even after the doll’s got its own scenes. The special effects are great on it too.

Acting helps too. Dourif’s serial killer might not make much sense, but his performance is excellent. Sarandon’s solid as the cop (though I question his sweater for the opening shootout… it just doesn’t seem like something a movie cop would wear). Catherine Hicks is okay as Vincent’s disbelieving mother. She’s maybe the film’s weakest performance, especially since Dinah Manoff (as her friend) is so good. Young Vincent might not give the most soulful youth performance ever or anything, but he makes the film. It isn’t so much his dialogue, but how Holland directs him physically. It’s a strong performance.

Holland’s best scene comes at the end–there’s a quiet Halloween homage–and it’s worth the wait. Early in the film, Holland has to do a lot of sight gags to confuse the viewer (well, to create the impression of confusing the viewer), and he repeats them a few times… The film also cheats a lot, like why does Vincent have money to ride the ‘L’ or how does Hicks know where all the homeless hang out (she visits multiple places). The film skips over some of the post-murder stuff, just to create–first, in the viewer’s mind, then in the characters’–some suspicion Vincent is the guilty party. The omissions get obvious after a while.

But Child’s Play works. It’s not exactly scary or disquieting or uncanny… but it’s entertaining and suspenseful.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tom Holland; screenplay by Don Mancini, John Lafia and Holland; director of photography, Bill Butler; edited by Roy E. Peterson and Edward Warschilka; music by Joe Renzetti; production designer, Daniel A. Lomino; produced by David Kirschner; released by United Artists.

Starring Catherine Hicks (Karen Barclay), Chris Sarandon (Mike Norris), Alex Vincent (Andy Barclay), Brad Dourif (Charles Lee Ray), Dinah Manoff (Maggie Peterson), Tommy Swerdlow (Jack Santos), Jack Colvin (Dr. Ardmore), Neil Giuntoli (Eddie Caputo), Juan Ramírez (Peddler) and Alan Wilder (Mr. Criswell).


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