Monthly Archives: June 2013

A Child is Waiting (1963)

a child is waiting

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Help for retarded children.

Jean Hanson (Judy Garland) is a woman looking for direction in her life. She takes a job with Dr. Matthew Clark (Burt Lancaster) who runs a school for children with mental handicaps. She finds the work to be more taxing than expected, but also forms a strong attachment to one of the boys named Reuben Widdicombe (Bruce Ritchey).  Dr. Clark notices this bonding and considers it to be a potential problem so his has Jean moved to another building, which causes Reuben to become very upset and displays his anger in all sorts of anti-social ways.

This film is raw and compelling and offering a refreshingly vivid non-sanitized look into work with the mentally handicapped. Director John Cassavetes and screenwriter Abby Mann take off all of the Hollywood gloss and shows things in a real and uncompromising way. The majority of the children are disabled and not actors. Their responses and behaviors are genuine. Some of the best moments are when Cassavetes turns on the camera and then just let things happen particularly when Garland and Lancaster visit a hospital for mentally handicapped adults as well as when they put on a play celebrating Thanksgiving with the children as the performers.

The film is tastefully done and avoids showing some of the cruelties people with these disabilities go through and instead only talks about them lightly. What I really liked though was that it shows things from the adult perspective particularly those of the parents and the difficult adjustment they have as well as the array of emotions. The meeting between a group of doctors discussing which schools for which handicapped children should be given more money and which one of them had a better potential to being more self-sufficient was equally interesting. The movie also makes great use of silence to help propel the emotion and thankfully keeps the music to a minimum.

Garland was a good choice simply for her perpetual look of concern on her face, which remains throughout. However, she has a very worn and haggard appearance and looking much older than the forty years that she was and by looking at her here it should come as no surprise that a mere seven years after filming this she would be dead.

Lancaster is splendid and this may be one of his best roles of his already illustrious career. His soothing and calm voice is perfect for the part and his best moment comes when he patiently tries to teach the children how to correctly annunciate certain words.

Ritchey is good as the child and has a face that is very cute and full of expression. However, he seems to suffer from a severe speech impediment that makes it difficult to understand what he is saying. I wasn’t sure if he suffered from this in real-life, or it was just done for the part, but since he never appeared in any other film role makes me believe that he did.

Steven Hill is also superb playing Reuben’s father a man who turned his back on his son and virtually abandoned him when he was diagnosed as being mentally handicapped only to at the very end have a change of heart.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: January 14, 1963

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Not Rated

Director: John Cassavetes

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS

Pretty Baby (1978)

pretty baby

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: He’s robbing the cradle.

Based on actual accounts of prostitutes living and working in the Storyville area of New Orleans in 1917 the film details the life of Violet (Brooke Shields) the 12 year-old daughter of Hattie (Susan Sarandon) who works as a prostitute and eventually breaks her daughter into the business. Bellocq (Keith Carradine) is a photographer who comes to the brothel to take portraits of the women. He falls in love with the young Violet and the two eventually marry.

Louis Malle’s American film debut is fabulous. He takes a daring subject matter and makes it real and vivid. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is so detailed that you almost think that you are looking at painted portraits of the era. Malle employs a leisurely European pace to the proceedings, which nicely reflects the slower era. The emphasis is on nuance and in that regard it is brilliant making the viewer feel that they are right there with characters and observing the daily realities around them. The story is certainly shocking, but somehow a strong human element remains making it fascinating and revealing.

The strongest moment comes when a group of middle-aged men bid on Violet to see who will get the honors to take her virginity. Having the camera pan the men’s eager faces, some of whom look to be nearing 50 and even 60 is visually potent as is Violet’s ambivalent expression as she stands on a chair in front of them. The fact that it is approached in a non-sensationalistic matter and instead more like as a slice-of-life makes it all the more disturbing and compelling.

Shields is fabulous. Her facial expressions as she observes the decadence around her is what really makes the movie. She shows a great awareness and creates an intriguing character that cannot read and write and yet acts like having sex with a middle-aged man is ‘no big deal’ and working as a prostitute is completely ‘normal’ way of life. Watching her shift between being very child-like to very jaded is fascinating. I really think this is an actress that is much more talented than she is given credit for and although many other actresses auditioned for the part including Tatum O’Neal, Meg Tilly, Geena Davis, and Diane Lane I really felt the movie wouldn’t have been as effective with them in the role. Shields is really exceptional and should have netted the Oscar, or at least have been nominated.

Sarandon is terrific as her hardened mother and unfortunately is not seen enough, but manages to light up every scene that she is in nonetheless. Singer Frances Faye is also quite good as the head of the brothel. Her old, tired face brings out the difficult, cold lifestyle. Her best moment comes when she is seen staring in a catatonic state into space while everyone else has left the place and all the belongings are being carried out.

Carradine is okay in a restrained performance as a character that is more educated and refined than the rest, which makes for some interesting interactions. The fact that this man ends up getting emotionally stung by such a young girl despite being so much more sophisticated and mature ends up being one of the film’s most definitive moments.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: April 5, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated R

Director: Louis Malle

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Idiots (1998)

the idiots 2

By Richard Winters 

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: This is so retarded.

The Idiots is another shocking, controversial, and highly original work from filmmaking maverick Lars Von Trier.  This one involves a group of disenchanted people in their 20’s and 30’s, who decided to rebel from society by acting like they are mentally retarded.

Although certainly not in the best of taste, there are some funny bits here. The comedy works well because amidst all of the outrageousness it is also very revealing about human nature. One of the best segments involves an affluent couple who wish to purchase a large, upscale home.  As they are touring the place they are informed that a group of ‘retards’ live next door. The couple put on the politically correct facade by saying that wouldn’t be a problem even though their facial expressions say otherwise.  When the group pretending to be retarded pays them a visit the couple quickly runs off.  Another funny part, which may actually be the most outlandish of the whole film, involves a group of tough, tattooed bikers who help in very graphic fashion one of the group members pretending to be mentally handicapped go to the bathroom. The group’s visit to a factory is also hilarious.

The majority of the film though is actually quite serious and yes, even thought provoking. Von Trier does a good job of analyzing things from different angles while supplying no easy answers. It was interesting how the group mocks society for all of their rules and customs and yet when one of their own members starts to act erratic they tie him to a bed and refuse to free him until he ‘settles down’, thus proving that even they themselves need certain rules of behavior in order to function even if they don’t want to admit it.  Some other strong dramatic scenes involve the father of one of the members who tries taking his daughter from the group and back home with him.  There is also a revealing segment involving one of the members who decides to ‘drop back into society’ and return to his job as a college professor despite the protests from the other members.  The group also comes into direct contact with people who are actually mentally handicapped and how each of them responds to this is fascinating.

The characters are nicely fleshed out.  All of them show distinct personalities and evolve in interesting ways as the film progresses. Karen (Bodil Jorgenson) acts as they catalyst.  She comes upon the group by chance and acts as a sort of ‘conscience’ for the film.  Initially she is shocked and confused by the group’s behavior, but because she is stuck in an unhappy relationship and grieving the recent death of her son, she decides to tag along. Eventually she starts to see the benefits of ‘spassing out’ which is the group’s term for ‘finding your inner idiot’.

I liked how the film challenges the concept of true rebellion and shows how complex the fabric of society really is. Everyone would like to ‘drop-out’ at certain times and there is even a need for it, but finding the right place can be complicated. I have often felt that the true nonconformist is either living on the streets, is in prison, or a mental institution and the film pretty much comes to this same conclusion, but without advocating ‘fitting-in’ with the establishment as the answer either.

My complaints for the film centers mainly on the over use of the hand-held camera, which tends to get distracting after a while and gives the film a needless amateurish feel. I know with Von Trier’s ‘Dogma 95′ manifesto the hand-held camera is a major factor, but I think he could back off a little with it. There is also a ‘gross-out’ segment at the end where the group member’s start to drool out their chewed up food, which I found completely disgusting especially the way the camera captures it in close-up. The pacing is pretty good, but it does drag a little at times and I felt the film went on about twenty-five minutes too long.

Obviously this is a film that will not appeal to everyone and in fact I would say that the majority of people may find it off-putting.  That doesn’t mean it is a bad film because I think it is a pretty good one and I liked it overall.  However, what makes it a good film is the fact that it works off of its own vision and makes no compromises in doing so.  For most viewers especially American audiences who are used to a ‘mass-appeal’ approach to film-making, this type of concept may not connect. 

the idiots 3

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: May 20, 1998

Runtime: 1Hour 57Minutes

Rated R

Director: Lars Von Trier

Studio: Zentropa Entertainments

Available: VHS, DVD

The Morning After (1986)

the morning after

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: She can’t remember anything.

Alex (Jane Fonda) is an out of work actress and alcoholic who is prone to black outs. One morning she wakes up to the find that the man lying beside her has been murdered. She isn’t sure if she did it or not as she can’t remember anything. She cleans up the place and then by chance meets Turner (Jeff Bridges) a former cop who tries to help her prove her innocence.

Starting out right away with her waking up to find the dead body doesn’t work. Some background to the character would have been better as without it the viewer doesn’t particularly care about the character’s predicament. It took me a long while before I could get into it and even then it was only at a lukewarm level. The laid-back and melodic jazz soundtrack doesn’t help. For a thriller it is completely out-of-place and as good as a director as Sidney Lumet is he seems to have problem in that area as the musical score selected for Family Business another film that he did was also a terrible choice.

The film has one interesting twist near the middle, but the pacing is so slow that whatever intrigue it gave me quickly subsided, which is the film’s biggest problem. It doesn’t know if it wants to be a thriller, mystery, drama, or love story. Too much time is spent dealing with Alex’s budding relationship with Turner, which isn’t interesting. By the time they do get back to the mystery you really don’t care anymore. There are also not enough suspects and I had figured out who the culprit was long before the revelation comes about.

Fonda is competent particularly in a teary-eyed emotional sequence where she tries to somehow justify her pathetic self-destructive existence. The character though is unappealing and it may take a while for the viewer to warm up to her if at all. I did like her in the blonde, puffy 80’s hairstyle, but at the half way mark she changes back to her more natural brunette look, which I felt made her look older.

Bridges character helps stabilize Fonda’s and in that regards his presence is helpful, but having them meet by complete chance and then having him get so involved in her quandary seemed implausible. It would have been better and made more sense had he been a longtime friend who she turned to in her time of crisis. Although Raul Julia has a less screen time he still adds a lot more energy than Bridges.

Kathy Bates, Bruce Vilanch, and Frances Bergen (Candice’s Mom) can all be seen in brief bits. I also want to mention Richard Foronjy who nails the caricature of a streetwise big city cop perfectly.

Although the film is now 27 years old it really isn’t too dated. Only two issues in this area come to mind. One is when Alex can’t get any money out of the bank because it is closed due to a holiday and there doesn’t seem to be any such thing as ATM machines. Another occurs when a police investigator asks the Raul Julia character if he is gay by using a derogatory term, which wouldn’t go over today. However, Julia’s comeback line “How bad do you want to know?” is a good one.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 43Minutes

Rated R

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: Lorimar Productions

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964)

the luck of ginger coffey

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He needs a job.

Ginger Coffey (Robert Shaw) is a middle-aged man living in Montreal whose dreams and ambitions far outweigh his grim predicament. He moves from one low paying job to another convinced that his lot in life will improve. His wife Vera (Mary Ure) decides to leave him and Ginger tries to win her back while juggling two jobs and hoping to get a promotion in one that never seems to come.

As a vivid look at the daily lives of the everyday working class this film hits a solid bullseye. The conversations between the co-workers and the monotonous and sometimes demeaning job interview process and Ginger’s on-going arguments with his wife and daughter are all true to form. There is no pretension and director Irvin Kershner keeps everything at a bare-bones minimum giving it almost a documentary style and making the viewer feel immersed in the bleak environment. The outdoor shots of the city are unexciting and cinematically unappealing, but help reflect the grim level. Watching Ginger get kicked out of his apartment and have to carry what is left of his belongings and then place them on the outside sidewalk while he goes in to visit his daughter in her school is quietly powerful.

Robert Shaw is excellent. This is a man who had by all accounts had a very dominating and proud personality in real-life and usually played characters with the same traits, so seeing him play against type and succeed is interesting. What is really effective is that he makes the character very human and likable despite his constant goof-ups, which keeps the viewer compelled to his situation.

Ure, who at the time was married to Shaw in real-life, gives an equally outstanding performance. Her perplexed facial expressions are perfect and the fact that we see her character grow and become more confident is good.

I also must mention Liam Redmond as Ginger’s cantankerous boss, who is nicknamed by his employees as ‘Hitler’. Ginger’s rushed job interview that he has with him is one of the film’s highpoints as is the moment when Ginger dashes away from him when he is caught making a personal phone call.

The only real complaint I have with the film is the ending, which is for the most part non-existent. I have seen vague wide-open endings in my movie viewing lifetime, but this thing is a cop-out and really boring one at that. I think when a viewer has spent nearly two hours empathizing with his difficult  and precarious situation that they deserve some sort of finality, or at least a hint of what became of him and whether he ever did find that ‘luck’ that he was so convinced was out there.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 21, 1964

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Irvin Kershner

Studio: Continental Distributing

Available: YouTube