Tag Archives: Donald Sutherland

The Day of the Locust (1975, John Schlesinger)

The Day of the Locust is a gentle film, at least in terms of Schlesinger’s direction, Conrad L. Hall’s cinematography and John Barry’s score. The film’s softly lit but with a whole lot of focus. Schlesinger wants to make sure the audience gets to see every part of the actors’ performances. He also wants the actors to exist in this dreamland. It’s Hollywood in the thirties, it’s supposed to be a dreamland. Except everything is a threat, possible danger is everywhere. Only Schlesinger doesn’t break that gentle direction until the third act, so he has to figure out how to suggest that danger as gently as possible.

Luckily, he’s got great actors, he’s got Hall, he’s got Barry, he’s got editor Jim Clark who does an unbelievable job cutting the film. Day of the Locust is a film about terrorized people who don’t realize they’re terrorized until its way too late.

The film opens with William Atherton moving into a not great apartment complex and getting a job in the art department at Paramount. He’s got a rather attractive neighbor, Karen Black, who works as an extra. Black lives with her father, played by Burgess Meredith. The first twenty or so minutes of the film beautifully establishes the grandeur of thirties Hollywood through Atherton’s perspective. Once Meredith shows up, however, the film becomes more and more Black’s.

Eventually, as Atherton’s attempts to woo Black go unsuccessful, Donald Sutherland shows up. He’s not in L.A. for the showbiz. He’s an accountant and a delicate person, something Sutherland essays beautifully. The thing about the acting in Locust is all of its great, it’s just great in completely different ways. Atherton’s story arc, for example, eventually becomes entirely subtext. A long take on him here, a cut to his reaction somewhere else. His character development becomes background, even though he’s somehow always the protagonist.

Sutherland falls for Black too. Just like Bo Hopkins does. Just like Richard Dysart does. Black doesn’t convey malice or even indifference to her suitors, she just doesn’t return their affections. Waldo Salt’s script is extremely complicated in how it deals with Black’s character. She’s never kind, but occasionally gentle. She’s rarely mean when sober, but when drunk she’s vicious. Her character, just like most of them in Locust, is inevitably tragic.

The Day of the Locust‘s characters’ tragedies stem from their unawareness. They’re victims, whether they know it or not. And they only way to succeed is to victimize someone else, which can even be a mutually beneficial arrangement. It’s a rather depressing film. Of course, Atherton’s protagonist is never looking for happiness so much as he is for beauty.

Black’s performance makes the film. Sutherland’s great, Meredith’s great, Atherton’s excellent in a slimmer role than the others, but it’s Black who makes The Day of the Locust so devastating. At least until the final devastation, where Schlesinger and Salt shatter the already shattered dream. For all Schlesinger’s excellent fine, gentle filmmaking, when he unleashes at the end of Locust, it’s even better. And editor Clark ably handles it all.

The Day of the Locust is exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Schlesinger; screenplay by Waldo Salt, based on a novel by Nathanael West; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Jim Clark; music by John Barry; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Jerome Hellman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Atherton (Tod Hackett), Karen Black (Faye Greener), Burgess Meredith (Harry Greener), Donald Sutherland (Homer Simpson), Richard Dysart (Claude Estee), Bo Hopkins (Earle Shoop), Geraldine Page (Big Sister), Paul Stewart (Helverston), John Hillerman (Ned Grote), Pepe Serna (Miguel) and Billy Barty (Abe Kusich).

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992, Fran Rubel Kuzui)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is so technically inept, not even Carter Burwell turns in a good score. Most scenes are just trying to decide who’s doing a worse job, director Kuzui, cinematographer James Hayman or editors Jill Savitt and Camilla Toniolo. Overall, it’s obviously Kuzui, but the editing in the first half by far worse than the photography. But the photography in the second half is so awful, it’s difficult to hold anything against the editing.

And then there’s Joss Whedon’s script. Regardless of whether or not someone rewrote it, it’s still awful.

But there’s a very likable quality to Buffy–Kristy Swanson. She does really well in the film. She has actual chemistry with Donald Sutherland and Luke Perry, even though Kuzui directs the actors terribly. Swanson weathers Kuzui’s direction best, Sutherland worst, Perry somewhere in between. Kuzui doesn’t have a sense of humor, which doesn’t help things. But Swanson gives a rather good performance. The film fails her over and over.

Perry manages to be likable whenever he’s around Swanson, until the film gets uncomfortable with her in the driver’s seat of their romance.

The vampires are lame. Paul Reubens is awful (Kuzui’s lack of humor fails him the most), Rutger Hauer isn’t much better. He and Swanson are awful together.

The movie runs eighty minutes and change. The first half, as Swanson trains to become the Vampire Slayer, moves pretty well. Kuzui and Hayman don’t do well, but they do okay. It’s trying to be a high school movie with vampire hunting. Swanson gets a great character arc and the script’s better one liners. Kuzui doesn’t seem to understand how the one liners work, but Swanson does. In contrast, Perry flops whenever he gets one of the one liners.

It ought to be a whole lot more entertaining, but the brisk pace of the first half and Swanson do get it to the finish. And, for what’s got to be the first time ever, I’ve got to single out the hair stylist–Barbara Olvera–she does a fantastic job with Swanson’s various styles.

I wish Buffy were better. It’s not, but I really wish it were. Swanson deserved it, Perry even deserved it. But really Swanson. She effortlessly goes from being likable to good. Shame the movie doesn’t even manage the former.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui; written by Joss Whedon; director of photography, James Hayman; edited by Jill Savitt and Camilla Toniolo; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Lawrence Miller; produced by Kaz Kuzui and Howard Rosenman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Kristy Swanson (Buffy), Donald Sutherland (Merrick), Paul Reubens (Amilyn), Rutger Hauer (Lothos), Luke Perry (Pike), Michele Abrams (Jennifer), Hilary Swank (Kimberly), Paris Vaughan (Nicki), David Arquette (Benny), Randall Batinkoff (Jeffrey), Andrew Lowery (Andy), Sasha Jenson (Grueller), Stephen Root (Gary Murray), Natasha Gregson Wagner (Cassandra) and Candy Clark (Buffy’s Mom).


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Heaven Help Us (1985, Michael Dinner)

In its hundred minute run time, Heaven Help Us does a number of things well. It’s beautifully edited, photographed, directed, acted. Charles Purpura’s screenplay offers a number of fantastic scenes, which director Dinner does a great job with. Overall, however, the screenplay is where there’s a significant problem. The film doesn’t have an ending and its lack of an ending just draws attention to the (easily overlooked) previous plotting deficiencies.

The film is so beautifully constructed in the first act, it gets by on that narrative goodwill and the performances all the way until the finale. Andrew McCarthy is the ostensible lead, the new kid at a Catholic high school in 1965 Brooklyn. His parents have died, he’s living with his sympathetic but awkward grandparents and his understandably upset little sister (Jennifer Dundas). He meets all the kids at school, then he meets a girl (Mary Stuart Masterson). They have a wonderfully dreary teen romance. Masterson is phenomenal, McCarthy is good.

Except it’s like Dinner realized McCarthy was too passive, so he gives Kevin Dillon a lot to do as the lovable bully. Dillon has all the Catholic school shenanigans (bullying, talking back to the priests, confession consulting, trying to corrupt a girl). Dinner and photographer Miroslav Ondríce give the school location enough personality the occasional diversions are all right. But, narratively speaking, Heaven Help Us points at Chekov’s gun only to reveal Greedo shoots first–it’s unclear if the film is hurrying to wrap up or if they just didn’t know what else to do with it.

Because part of the film’s charm is its scope. Dinner and Ondríce do a lot with a limited number of locations, a limited number of angles. They recreate 1965 Brooklyn through intelligent framing, with Stephen A. Rotter’s editing implying a lot of the rest. Rotter’s editing is excellent throughout the film, from the very first sequence.

The film isn’t happy. It’s often funny–there are the hijinks after all and McCarthy and John Heard (as the new priest at the school, which seems like a great narrative device but just gets lost) are great at deadpan–but it’s sad. There’s a weight to it all. Heaven Help Us isn’t just about McCarthy and Dillon finding themselves (they don’t even have to do it themselves–the abrupt deus ex machina takes care of their problems), it really is about Catholic high school. It’s about Heard’s relationship with the headmaster (Donald Sutherland in a fun performance) and the other teachers (specifically an outstanding Jay Patterson as a vicious, cruel one). It’s about the boys growing up in this environment. Dinner takes it very seriously.

Except he’s got too much, because he’s supposed to be making this movie about Andrew McCarthy and Mary Stuart Masterson (who actually has the best story in the film). Instead, he wants to make one about pro-hippie priest John Heard bucking the system. But then he goes ahead and makes one about Dillon.

It’s a mess, but a successful one. Until the third act, all of Dinner and Purpura’s tangential moments work out, like Wallace Shawn’s hilarious monologue on lust.

Heaven Help Us is a fine film, but Dinner had all the pieces–Masterson, McCarthy, Heard, Ondrícek, Rotter, composer James Horner–to make a truly excellent one.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Dinner; written by Charles Purpura; director of photography, Miroslav Ondrícek; edited by Stephen A. Rotter; music by James Horner; production designer, Michael Molly; produced by Dan Wigutow and Mark Carliner; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Andrew McCarthy (Michael Dunn), Mary Stuart Masterson (Danni), Kevin Dillon (Rooney), Donald Sutherland (Brother Thadeus), John Heard (Brother Timothy), Jay Patterson (Brother Constance), Malcolm Danare (Caesar), Stephen Geoffreys (Williams), Christopher Durang (Priest), Dana Barron (Janine), Yeardley Smith (Cathleen), Jennifer Dundas (Boo), Kate Reid (Grandma) and Wallace Shawn (Father Abruzzi).


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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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