Category Archives: Drama

Signs (2002, M. Night Shyamalan)

It’s impossible to overstate what a profoundly, risibly bad movie Shyamalan has made with Signs. As the end credits started rolling, after the most disappointing “epilogue” Shyamalan could’ve come up with—it’s not just disappointing, it’s also pointless (pointless is the probably the best adjective to describe scenes in Signs)—my wife joked the movie took two weeks to film. To which I responded, “Thirteen and a half days longer than it took to write.” Because even with all the bad in Signs—and there’s so much bad—the writing is the worst.

And Shyamalan does this non-committal “camera as POV” thing—cinematographer Tak Fujimoto should be ashamed of himself for enabling Shyamalan to do it and embarrassed with how poorly he shoots the thing; Signs looks terrible–so, in other words, there’s a lot of competition for what’s worst in Signs. Shyamalan’s direction of the talking heads scenes—and there so many talking heads scenes because Shyamalan, who’s ego is literally oozing from every grain of film–involves characters almost looking directly into the camera but then just a little diagonally. Shyamalan is going for something with Signs, with his very intentional direction, his very intentional casting of himself as the guy who kills star Mel Gibson’s wife in a traffic accident (Shyamalan was asleep at the wheel) and vehicular manslaughter isn’t a thing and it just turns reverend Gibson into an atheist (but they never say the a-word because while Signs is definitely a millimeter thinly veiled Christian movie, there’s still the veil and it’s never going to get confrontational about it). Also… Shyamalan wrote the movie, so he did kill the wife.

Symbolism. Pass it on. Like the dog tchotchkes at the end to remind the viewer there are dogs, even if everyone forgot about them because they don’t matter because Signs is insipid.

Signs is full of symbolism but not really full because there’s not much because Shyamalan gets frequently bored with things like mise en scène because there’s better things to do like write the awful scenes between Gibson and his family. I went into Signs at least thinking Gibson would get through it unscathed (performance-wise). No. No. Not at all. It’s a godawful performance. He is incapable of pretending to be a former reverend, a widow, a husband, a father, a brother, and a farmer. The scenes with Gibson and kids Rory Culkin (who’s kind of terrible; it’s not his fault, Shyamalan seems to be having him do a Macaulay impression circa Uncle Buck but he’s still bad) and Abigail Breslin, who gets terrible material and terrible direction, but is still phenomenal. Shyamalan can’t figure out how to direct her because she’s not terrible like the rest of his cast.

Though, not Joaquin Phoenix. He’s leagues better than Gibson, though it helps Phoenix’s character is a dope. Gibson’s ostensibly functional enough to get to this point in his life—whereas Phoenix apparently always had Gibson to lean on—yet Gibson is real dumb. Real dumb.

Other bad things about Signs? Cherry Jones. She’s awful. Ted Sutton is so bad SAG should’ve shut the production down. Bad editing from Barbara Tulliver; Tulliver’s editing, cut for cut, is probably even worse than Fujimoto’s photography. Tulliver—presumably unintentionally—screws up all of Shyamalan’s jump scares. Larry Fulton’s production design is bad.

James Newton Howard’s score, while inexplicably a complete Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock rip-off (oh, wait, was Signs in the middle of Shyamalan being the new Hitchcock era), and poorly utilized, isn’t poorly composed. It’s competent, just misapplied. Everything else is incompetent and misapplied.

I was looking through Rodale for a good, fresh adjective to describe Signs but I think vapid does the job best. It’s worse than I expected it to be, which is saying a lot, but it also surprised me. I had no idea Gibson would so spectacularly fail or Phoenix would be—with a lot of conditions—so much better. And I guess Shyamalan managed to be inventively terrible, it’s just he’s a pointless kind of inventively terrible.

Oh, you know what… there’s the word.

Puerile.

Signs is puerile.

CREDITS

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Larry Fulton; costume designer, Ann Roth; produced by Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer, and Shyamalan; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Mel Gibson (Graham Hess), Joaquin Phoenix (Merrill Hess), Rory Culkin (Morgan Hess), Abigail Breslin (Bo Hess), Patricia Kalember (Colleen Hess), Cherry Jones (Officer Paski), Ted Sutton (SFC Cunningham), Merritt Wever (Tracey Abernathy), and M. Night Shyamalan (Ray Reddy).


The Hustler (1961, Robert Rossen)

It’s an hour into The Hustler before the film offers any real information about protagonist Paul Newman. We’ve seen Newman and mentor slash manager Myron McCormick pool hustle their way across the North American continent, getting Newman to New York City so he can play the best pool player in the world, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). And Newman does play Gleason. In this beautifully shot, acted, and especially edited twenty-five plus hour pool game between the young upstart and the assured master. McCormick pleads with Newman to remember their plan—ten grand and out—but Newman’s just too cocky.

When Gleason beats him, thirty-five minutes into a two hour and fifteen minute picture, we don’t even get to see Newman lose. He just see him lost. Past lost. We’re left to imagine how he reacted to hours of losing, while Gleason—and his bank, George C. Scott—grew bored beating Newman. McCormick sits quietly devastated while Newman drunkenly lashes out and crumbles from exhaustion.

Scene.

But actually prologue. The Hustler doesn’t really start until after Newman’s snuck out on McCormick and is working to get himself lost in the city. At the bus terminal (to dump his belongs in a locker), he meets Piper Laurie and tries to pick her up. It’s complicated and he’s got to wait until she’s quite drunk, but he manages to do it. Only for her to rebuff him at the door to her apartment; “you’re too hungry,” she tells him. So off Newman shuffles into the anonymous city, finding a room, trying to play some pool (but he’s now famous for losing to Gleason and can’t).

The initial pickup scene—with Laurie simultaneously softened and steeled to Newman’s advances and flirtations—is just as phenomenal as the pool game. It’s the first time we’ve gotten to see Newman act outside the hustler bravado. It’s the first time we’ve seen a woman in the film. It’s the first time director Rossen and editor Dede Allen have done a conversation outside the pool hall—and they use a similar but amplified editing rhythm. Now there are jump cuts, exclamation points focusing on Newman or Laurie. Rossen and Allen keep with this editing style going forward, even after Newman gets back to the pool table. After a freely roaming narrative distance in the first forty minutes, once Laurie arrives, Rossen focuses and refocuses it forcibly. Occasionally harshly. Rossen’s evolving methods to handling the narrative distance parallel Newman’s character development, which doesn’t even start when he meets Laurie the first time. We’ve got to wait another twenty or whatever minutes until McCormick tracks him down.

And then, an hour into the film, both Laurie and the audience find out we haven’t got the slightest idea about Newman as a person. Laurie stands silent, frozen, crying, as she listens to Newman berate McCormick and cast him out. The reality of their “romance,” with Newman living with Laurie and them filling their days with liquor then sex, hits her and breaks her. Did Newman hustle her? Laurie’s got a limp from a childhood case of polio and it’s 1961 so she’s seen as broken—honestly, it’s an indictment of 1961 the word “crippled” didn’t fall out of use after this film—but Newman doesn’t make her feel that way.

At least until she’s now got to wonder if he’s entirely full of shit.

But then Newman hustles in the wrong pool hall and all of a sudden he’s entirely dependent on Laurie. She’s even slowing down on the boozing, with Newman initially reluctantly but then more earnestly following suit. It’s this whole second story, with its own rhythm and feel—all about urban isolation and loneliness and desperation and connection—and when it ties into the prologue, it’s like the apple. When Newman runs into George C. Scott while out on a liquor run for he and Laurie, he finds the snake. Scott thinks he’s too cocky to ever amount to anything but is still talented enough to bank roll for certain jobs.

In one of the quieter tragic twists, once Newman’s found some humility (and humanity), Scott’s the only place he can go to get real work. And bringing in Scott, who’s more than willing to break Newman to make him fit the mold, is what sets everyone on the path to destruction.

The last third or so of The Hustler is just watching Scott crush Newman and Laurie’s tentative, desperate hold on their reality. Laurie has to endure Scott’s intentional cruelty as well as Newman’s slow corruption; it’s pretty easy to corrupt Newman it turns out, there just needs to be booze around. The foundation of Newman and Laurie’s relationship is loving not being sober. It’s loving being loose enough to get free from responsibility. What makes it all even worse is Scott’s already given Newman a character evaluation and told him how he’s going to fail and Newman can’t get off that track. The difference is he’s now got Laurie with him, bringing her along on his first job for Scott; they’re going to the Kentucky Derby to play skeazy blue blood Murray Hamilton. Hamilton likes hustling hustlers at pool and Scott thinks Newman’s got a shot.

The film says a whole bunch about masculinity, toxic masculinity, boozing, sex, romance, money. It doesn’t have much to say about pool. Gleason’s only in the bookend pool games and ends up with an exceptionally subtle, appropriately devastating arc about what it means to have talent.

Great performances from everyone; it’s Newman’s show but Laurie’s the essential. So much of the film plays out on she and Newman’s faces, every expression has to be perfect. Scott’s amazing. Gleason and McCormick are excellent. The Hustler is definitely a “uses up all the superlatives” film. Allen’s edited, Eugen Schüfftan’s photography, Kenyon Hopkins’s music—whoever came up with the titles—it’s a technical masterpiece. I mean, it’s a masterpiece overall—Sidney Carroll and Rossen’s script is singular—the film’s constantly wowing; it’s exhilarating.

And, simultaneously, an abject downer.

It’s so good.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Robert Rossen; screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Rossen, based on the novel by Walter Tevis; director of photography, Eugen Schüfftan; edited by Dede Allen; music by Kenyon Hopkins; production designer, Harry Horner; costume designer, Ruth Morley; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Paul Newman (Eddie Felson), Piper Laurie (Sarah Packard), George C. Scott (Bert Gordon), Myron McCormick (Charlie Burns), Murray Hamilton (Findley), and Jackie Gleason (Minnesota Fats).


High Tide (1987, Gillian Armstrong)

During High Tide’s final twist, I began to wonder just how different the film would be with different music. Sometimes Peter Best’s score is fine—or even good—sometimes it’s very much a product of its time and using way too much saxophone. The film’s biggest melodrama beat, where it commits to just being a melodrama about long-lost mom Judy Davis reuniting with daughter-who-thought-she-was-dead Claudia Karvan, the music utterly flops. It’s a questionable sequence at best—director Armstrong and writer Laura Jones have completely lost any sense of narrative distance or perspective by this point in the film—but it Best’s accompanying music just makes it silly.

Doesn’t help the scenes immediately following are basically a rapid-fire montage to get the characters through their difficult “thinking and feeling” responses, skipping Davis altogether and giving Karvan yet another disagreement with grandmother and guardian Jan Adele. What’s even stranger is the film takes place in a very finite time period—a week and a couple days, yet sometimes it’ll seem like far more time has passed than could’ve, particularly with Davis’s romance with local boy Colin Friels.

It’s all a shame because the first act is excellent. Davis comes to this small-town on tour; she’s a backup singer and dancer for an Elvis impersonator. Little does she know daughter Karvan is living there with Adele in a mobile home park. Karvan’s aware of Davis’s presence almost immediately. The town’s only got one entertainment hall, split between the family friendly and the adults only. Karvan sneaks over to look and happens to see Davis, but has no frame of reference to recognize her. Davis has made no effort to contact Karvan and, for a while, I’d forgotten they were going to be mother and daughter, because Davis is so blasé about being in this particular small town.

Well, she’s blasé because she has no idea. But when her car breaks down and she’s got to stay in the same mobile home park while it’s getting fixed up… it’s only a matter of time before she and Karvan cross paths. And then only a little more time before Adele shows up, telling Davis to stay away or else. Can Davis stay away? Ish. The plot perturbations to inform Karvan of her mystery parentage are rather protracted and basically reveal the utter pointlessness of one of the supporting cast members. High Tide’s plotting is particularly weird because the third act dumps significant supporting cast members, leaving their subplots either unresolved or passed off with a shrug and a line of exposition.

Based on how Armstrong sets up the film’s narrative distance in the first act, with the camera as an omniscient, objective third person, it could be fine. But the camera gets a whole lot less exploratory in the second act, especially once Armstrong settles on her system for conversation scenes. Establishing, close-up, alternate close-up, close-up, alternative close-up, maybe a tight medium shot of one person, then the other, then scene. Armstrong sticks closest to this formula with anything involving Davis, which means you rarely get to see her and Karvan on screen together. Instead there are just the reaction shots as they try to figure out their relationship, which ought to be some good scenes, based on how well Davis and Karvan do in other parts of the film… but the script’s not there. You wait the whole movie—well, after it’s revealed they’re really doing the one in 16.26 million chance of them running into each other—and then the pay-off is blah. It’s okay enough for Davis, but the film’s been gradually less and less her perspective and more her being a subject, but it’s terrible for Karvan. When Davis and Adele are fighting over her, she’s got all the agency of a paperweight.

Again, with that omniscient, objective third person camera Armstrong could get away with it because she’s just finding the image in these actions, but Armstrong has long since dropped it. Even for the terrible melodrama beat, it’s not like Armstrong’s got some beautifully visualized sequence with crappy music. It’s a boring (albeit pretty because ocean and beach and whatnot) visual and that crappy saxophone blaring.

For some of the second act, before it’s clear Davis doesn’t actually have anything going on besides the don’t-want-to-be a mom arc, it seems like High Tide would be better if she and Karvan’s stories were just juxtaposed. But they don’t end up having enough story. Davis’s most successful character relationship arc is with the mechanic (Mark Hembrow), who’s not even in it enough to get a name in the end credits. And Adele… she kind of gets more to do than either of them, but it’s just to burn runtime.

Good photography from Russell Boyd, fine editing from Nicholas Beauman. Sally Campbell’s production design is excellent.

Davis is good, Adele is all right, Karvan’s okay. Friels’s… fine. What’s interesting about Davis is apparently she picks “good” men, which isn’t really part of the story as it turns out. High Tide just needs a good rewrite. And a composer without a predilection for saxophones.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gillian Armstrong; written by Laura Jones; director of photography, Russell Boyd; edited by Nicholas Beauman; music by Peter Best; production designer, Sally Campbell; costume designer, Terry Ryan; produced by Sandra Levy; released by Filmpac Distribution.

Starring Judy Davis (Lilli), Claudia Karvan (Ally), Jan Adele (Bet), John Clayton (Col), Colin Friels (Mick), Frankie J. Holden (Lester), Toni Scanlan (Mary), Monica Trapaga (Tracey), ‘Cowboy’ Bob Purtell (Joe), Marc Aden Gray (Jason), Emily Stocker (Michelle), and Mark Hembrow (the mechanic).


Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick)

The first half of Barry Lyndon, very nicely delineated on screen with a title card and then an intermission, is a black comedy. The second half is a tragedy. The epilogue explicitly reconciles the two, but there’s also Michael Hordern’s narration, which does the most expository work of anything in the picture. For the most part, Barry Lyndon’s characters are inscrutable. There are occasional exceptions, usually driven from ambiguity by rage—often directed at the titular protagonist, played by Ryan O’Neal—like first nemesis Leonard Rossiter and final nemesis Leon Vitali. Rossiter and Vitali’s souls lay bare. Most everyone else’s do not. Least of all O’Neal’s. O’Neal and his protagonist, subject of the narration but not the film, are forever a mystery. The narration often will describe O’Neal’s actions and reactions, even their motivations, but sometimes not. For example, in the first half of the film, when O’Neal deserts and assumes the identity of an officer, we never know why O’Neal doesn’t put more work into his disguise. In the second half, and far more consequentially for everyone, it’s never clear if O’Neal knocking off the drinking and carousing once he marries rich widow Marisa Berenson is sincere and, regardless, what made him knock it off.

Part one of the film follows O’Neal from poverty in Ireland to military success—albeit enlisted—in the Seven Years War on the continent, then his escape from the military into professional gambling, which leads him to Berenson. The scene where O’Neal seduces Berenson is exquisite and singular, a sublime mix of various movie magics—Kubrick’s direction, the actors silent looks exchanged over a card game, John Alcott’s glorious, gorgeous lighting, Tony Lawson’s editing, the music—the film’s main theme is a Handel piece, which Kubrick trains the audience throughout the first half to recognize for what it accompanies dramatically and then is able to use it later to amplify sequences—not to mention Ken Adam’s production design, Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund’s costumes. Every frame of Barry Lyndon is resplendent in one way or another, often in many ways. Kubrick doesn’t do a lot of camera movements, instead relying on zooms to reveal and hide various actions.

Part two of the film is O’Neal and Berenson’s marriage, complicated by his mother (Marie Kean) and her son (Dominic Savage then Leon Vitali), amongst others—not to mention O’Neal’s callousness and cruelty as he assumes control of Berenson’s riches. He’d seduced her while her first husband, aged Frank Middlemass, was still alive and, once his prize is secured, he becomes quite the dick. Again, it’s impossible to know whether O’Neal was always a dick—he’d picked out Berenson as a target, during his days with mentor Patrick Magee, a fellow Irishman pretending to be a Frenchman to card sharp around Europe. O’Neal’s his committed sidekick.

O’Neal and Berenson’s eventual child, David Morley, provides a kind of touchstone for everyone to connect around, even Vitali, who’s seen through O’Neal the whole time and hates him. But it also ends up being Morley who will finally break Vitali’s fragile place in this home he loathes, with his final outburst arguably setting everyone’s lives on a path of destruction. The narrator tells the audience when it’s all too late, some fifty minutes before the end of the film, announcing when it’s time to prepare for the descent, a luxury the characters are without.

The first part of the film is full of entertaining supporting cast members, a somewhat eclectic, somewhat mundane bunch O’Neal meets as his destiny—already rerouted in youth as his father died in a duel just after securing stable employment—moves towards its inevitable conclusion. There’s cousin Gay Hamilton, who teaches O’Neal his way around a woman—it’s unclear how young thirty-two year-old O’Neal is supposed to be playing, but it’s like… seventeen or something. And O’Neal’s frequently blank look is perfect. One of the mysteries is how much O’Neal is grokking things around around him. The Hamilton stuff, at least then O’Neal’s naivety isn’t in question. Hamilton isn’t seriously going to marry her cousin so she warms up to a British officer, aforementioned first nemesis Rossiter, who O’Neal has no problem confronting and making his first duel. The film opens with O’Neal’s father’s death in the duel, so it’s always hanging around. O’Neal is actually fearless while his betters pretend to be and he wields that situation for his own class improvement. Again, does he do it consciously or instinctively… it’s intentionally unclear.

Because while O’Neal is an interesting historical figure to track through these turbulent times, he’s not a sympathetic one. He’s more sympathetic than many and he frequently deserves at least a measure of empathy, he’s never Kubrick’s tragic hero. The tragic hero of the film, its actual subject but not protagonist (because it’s not possible for her to be one) is Berenson. There are tragedies abound in the second part of Lyndon and none of them don’t serve to further devastate Berenson, who weathers them all onscreen in silence, with Kubrick and Alcott’s camera and then Lawson’s cuts all scrutinizing her. O’Neal gives a fantastic performance in Barry Lyndon, but Berenson is the performance the film hinges on. She’s got to convey all the answers without addressing them—or having them addressed in the narration—while O’Neal gets to embrace the inscrutability because, well, he’s a man. And the men of Barry Lyndon place very little value on anything.

The film doesn’t engage much with the fatalism of dueling culture but it’s ever-present. It lurks in the background, waiting for an opportunity to lunge. Similarly, while the first half of Barry Lyndon is very much a war film, it never greatly engages with it; often it’ll happen out-of-shot, but heard, a technique Kubrick utilizes to great effect throughout the first half. Reaction shots from the listener without showing this line or that line being spoken. Eventually it scales up to be the gunfire, which Kubrick actually foreshadows without sound effects earlier in the film. It’s all very intricate, very precise, very delicate.

Everything needs to work for the third act, say the last fifty or so minutes, to deliberately walk its tightrope.

Most everyone O’Neal meets along his way are distinct and excellent—Arthur O'Sullivan’s highwayman only gets a couple scenes but is memorable, Godfrey Quigley’s kindly captain is the closest thing O’Neal, the film, and the audience have to a wholesome role model. Murray Melvin is excellent as Berenson’s personal reverend. Philip Stone’s good as the suffering estate accountant.

Vitali’s got the hardest part in the film and he pulls it off. He manages to be loathsome—he always saves some of his lashings out for Berenson, spitting venom at her once he’s got everyone’s attention—and hateful but never exactly villainous. He’s a very interesting mirror for O’Neal, though neither (apparently) acknowledges it.

Barry Lyndon, especially in the first half, is a history lesson (of sorts); it examines particular times and places, particular cultural norms and mores, without engaging with the larger scale historical events passing. The second half just focuses it in more, examining the participants of the unfolding drama, watching them struggle with their historical contexts… doomed by them, actually. But with a sense of humor about it.

It’s a singular motion picture, always grandiose but never unwieldy, with a superb script from Kubrick, every technical contribution an achievement, and perfect performances. There’s nothing else like it.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick, based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray; director of photography, John Alcott; edited by Tony Lawson; production designer, Ken Adam; costume designers, Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon), Marisa Berenson (Lady Honoria Lyndon), Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon), Marie Kean (Mrs. Barry), David Morley (Bryan Patrick Lyndon), Murray Melvin (Rev. Samuel Runt), Philip Stone (Graham), Patrick Magee (The Chevalier du Balibari), Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady), Leonard Rossiter (Capt. John Quin), Godfrey Quigley (Capt. Grogan), Hardy Krüger (Capt. Potzdorf), Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd), Diana Körner (Lischen), Frank Middlemass (Sir Charles Lyndon), Dominic Savage (Young Bullingdon), and Arthur O’Sullivan (Capt. Feeny); narrated by Michael Hordern.