Griffin Dunne

Touched with Fire (2015, Paul Dalio)

Somewhere early in Touched with Fire’s third act, it becomes clear there’s not going to be any performance potential from leads Luke Kirby and Katie Holmes. The movie doesn’t really want to be about them. Director (and writer) Dalio skips all the character development, leaving Holmes dulled and Kirby perpetually in between a Zach Braff impression and a Casey Affleck one.

Same goes for “special guest stars”–but in the low budget sense, not the late seventies melodrama one–Bruce Altman, Griffin Dunne, and Christine Lahti. While Dalio’s script shafts them all, it’s unequal. Altman has the smallest part, which is kind of best given Dunne and Lahti don’t get any character development either. They get a lot of dramatic setup for character development; once again, Dalio’s not interested.

In fact, Dalio’s never interested in anything long enough in Touched With Fire for it to stick.

Holmes and Kirby are bipolar young adults who just happen to be in their mid-thirties. They look good for it, but they still clearly are too old to have so few life experiences. They live in New York City, both supported by their parents. Dunne is Kirby’s dad, Lahti and Altman are Holmes’s parents. The film introduces the principals (including Dunne and Lahti), then contrives a way to get Kirby and Holmes together. They’re both committed, Kirby because of criminal behavior, Holmes because the doctor cons her into it.

Maryann Urbano is great as the doctor. It’s also one of the better written roles in Dalio’s script; Urbano’s behavior and actions towards Kirby and Holmes are consistent. No one else is ever consistent. They sway with the changing winds of scene need.

So after not liking one another, Kirby and Holmes soon bond over poetry. Holmes is formerly successful (and published) poet–the timeline on when is unclear–and Kirby is a rap poet. Though Dalio never gets into what he means by rap poetry. It’s associative rhyming. When the film starts, Kirby is popular at his performances, Holmes is not.

Kirby thinks being bipolar informs his creativity, Holmes… well, actually, it’s never clear what Holmes thinks. Because–even though the film shows her writing poetry a lot–her feelings about it are never even acknowledged. Unless it’s one of the scenes where Kirby’s telling her how she doesn’t feel about it. Those scenes are in that ramshackle third act.

Anyway. Kirby and Holmes fall in love (while committed) but circumstances separate them. When they do get back together, determined to embrace the creative benefits of being bipolar, the film turns into a series of montages. It already had a bunch of montages while they were meeting in the middle of the night, but there was at least drama there. They poison an attendant. They battle Urbano. Their respective parents dismiss them. There’s drama.

Not in the later montages. In those montages, as the film has already shown the dangers of their mania, have some drama as they get closer and closer to the disaster, but not really. Because all the self-destructive character traits Kirby exhibited before meeting Holmes? Gone. Does Dalio explore the change? Nope. It doesn’t really matter for Holmes because she’s now entirely defined by her relationship with her parents. Even though Dunne’s always along to disappoint Kirby, the scenes anchor around Lahti and Altman.

There’s also the film itself. It’s entitled Touched with Fire because of a book called Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison. Who appears in the film as herself, for a rather disappointing sequence. But the book is about famous creatives through history who were manic-depressive. Byron, Van Gogh (lots of Starry Night references in the film too), and many others. Kirby sees himself in that lot, mostly in the first and third acts.

Only Touched with Fire, the movie, never explores the characters’ creativity. Holmes doesn’t grow as a poet because of her relationship with Kirby. In fact, he controls her work. Or he doesn’t. It’s unclear. Because Dalio isn’t interested. So it’s a film about being creative without anything to say about actual creativity. Montages of being silly in public don’t cover it.

Both leads are disappointing. More Kirby because he’s got the bigger part. Dalio doesn’t give it anywhere to go. Holmes has somewhere to go–three times–and Dalio stays as far away from her as he can during them. Dunne and Lahti are great. More Dunne because Lahti gets some of the worst inconsistent behavior scenes. Altman’s fine. He’s got absolutely nothing to do except be present and Bruce Altman.

Dalio’s strength as a director in his ability to execute the production on its limited budget. His composition’s never terrible but sometimes predictable and never exciting. It’s boring without being tedious. He doesn’t direct the actors, which is a problem. The leads both need it. His musical score’s damned good though.

Editing and cinematography are both thoroughly competent. Better editing might’ve done wonders.

Touched with Fire has all sorts of interesting places to go and goes none of them. It frequently pretends the opportunities aren’t even there. And there was no reason for it to fall apart in the third act.

Watching Touched with Fire, you keep wanting it to get better or be better or do the right thing. It rarely does. And never when it counts.

1/4

CREDITS

Written, edited, and directed by Paul Dalio; directors of photography, Kristina Nikolova Dalio and Alexander Stanishev; music by Dalio; production designer, Kay Lee; produced by Jeremy Alter, Nikolova Dalio, and Jason Sokoloff; released by Roadside Attractions.

Starring Luke Kirby (Marco), Katie Holmes (Carla), Christine Lahti (Sara), Griffin Dunne (George), Maryann Urbano (Dr. Strinsky), Bruce Altman (Donald), Daniel Gerroll (Dr. Lyon), and Kay Redfield Jamison (Kay Jamison).


An American Werewolf in London (1981, John Landis)

There’s a lot of good stuff about An American Werewolf in London–for example, Landis doesn’t have a single joke fall flat–but something about it just doesn’t work.

Something Landis doesn’t do, as a director. I can’t quite put a label on it, since he does so many things well. Like the English setting.

With Robert Paynter’s photography, even when the English are acting stereotypically unfunny, it seems perfectly real. During these sequences, in the second half of the film, it also feels like Landis is doing a deliberate, thoughtful look at someone becoming a werewolf.

Only, he’s really not, because David Naughton’s wolf man is barely a character. Landis just thinks of good scenes and executes them mediocrely.

Maybe if Malcolm Campbell’s editing weren’t so disjointed and awful, Landis could get away with it better. The editing is rather awful–so bad I would forgive all the stupid dream sequences, if only they’d been well cut.

Without the dreams, Landis might have had time to create a real character for Naughton. He sort of coasts through the film, assuming he’s charming enough for it to work.

The supporting cast is excellent, particularly John Woodvine and Brian Glover. Jenny Agutter is fine. Griffin Dunne is occasionally awful, usually due to script problems, but mostly good.

The special effects are similarly problematic. The transformation is neat and amazing, but the actual design for the werewolf is a complete yawn.

The film has a lot of potential… too bad most of it is unrealized.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by John Landis; director of photography, Robert Paynter; edited by Malcolm Campbell; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by George Folsey Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring David Naughton (David Kessler), Jenny Agutter (Nurse Alex Price), Griffin Dunne (Jack Goodman), John Woodvine (Dr. J.S. Hirsch), Lila Kaye (Barmaid), Joe Belcher (Truck Driver), David Schofield (Dart Player) and Brian Glover (Chess Player).


Sounds from a Town I Love (2001, Woody Allen)

Allen did Sounds from a Town I Love quickly, for the “Concert for New York City” benefit. It’s very short clips—about ten seconds—of (uncredited) people walking around New York on their cellphones. The snippets of conversation are all played for comedic effect, while still maintaining a mild sense of reality (some of the snippets are more real than others—the mother worrying her three year-old’s life is over after not getting into a preschool).

There’s a frequent balance between laughing at the conversation and at the speaker. Austin Pendleton’s director whose understanding of the south-central Asia countries is based on their film festivals is a fine example. If it weren’t Pendleton, it wouldn’t work. But he’s likable in his absurdity.

The snippets let Allen make Sounds very memorable very quickly… which then made me wonder how his use of the final snippet would be.

Unsurprisingly perfect.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen.

Starring Marshall Brickman, Griffin Dunne, Michael Emerson, Hazelle Goodman, Rick Mowat, Bebe Neuwirth, Austin Pendleton, Tony Roberts and Celia Weston.


Baby It’s You (1983, John Sayles)

Baby It’s You is a John Sayles film I never expected to see… it’s John Sayles for hire. Sayles has had a lucrative career as a ghostwriter of blockbusters (Apollo 13 famously had his name on one poster… but not after the WGA got done). But Baby It’s You is the first of his films as a director I’ve encountered where Sayles struggled to find something to amuse himself. This film’s producer and credited story writer, Amy Robinson, shares a lot with the protagonist played by Rosanna Arquette and the film feels an awfully lot like an “inspired by a true story.” Sayles does well with that genre, except Baby It’s You isn’t just subpar for Sayles… it’s a thoughtfully produced television movie.

With Sayles’s direction–he doesn’t really get going until the third act in a lot of ways, his earlier moments of accomplishment are just his knowledge of making a film work on a small budget. How do you show you’re in a busy schoolyard without a big budget? Sound. The first three-quarters of the film is Sayles using his filmmaking skills to make the 1967 setting work flawlessly. In the end, he finally gets some moments of actual human interaction, instead of superficial movie ones, and–even with Arquette–it works.

Baby It’s You starts with Sayles’s name and some anachronistic use of Bruce Springsteen (for Vincent Spano’s big scenes, which is an artistically interesting move but distracting and unsuccessful). It feels like it might be Sayles, but then it gradually becomes clear it is not. Sayles knows what to do with Arquette’s character and the moments with her group of friends in high school reveal where the film could have gone… but with Spano, Sayles is lost.

The film concerns Arquette’s relationship with high school oddball (not quite thug, not quite not) Spano as she leaves working class New Jersey for Sarah Lawrence. The acting is a big problem, but not the film’s biggest. Sayles really doesn’t know what to do with Spano… maybe because the character remains opaque to the viewer until the third act, but maybe because the story just isn’t interesting. I lost count of how many times I wondered why these characters’ experiences were worth my hundred minutes. Not a concern I tend to have with Sayles, who can take it from one end of the spectrum to the other. Baby It’s You doesn’t really participate in that spectrum. It’s in a whole different one–the one where Rosanna Arquette shows up in a movie.

Matthew Modine has a small role in Baby It’s You. At this point in Modine’s career, he was a young Hollywood actor on his way up (he got washed away by the Brat Pack). It’s a John Sayles movie with Hollywood politicking. Sayles doesn’t do well with it.

Actually, Modine’s good, probably giving the second best performance–Tracy Pollan’s quite good as one of Arquette’s college classmates. Bill Raymond’s also good in a small role.

Spano isn’t terrible, but he’s visibly out of his depth. Sayles’s script asks him for the impossible–the character’s just too vague. Arquette either gets a little better at the end or she’d just killed enough of my brain cells I didn’t care anymore.

I’ve been wanting to see Baby It’s You for about twelve years.

I could have waited.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Sayles; screenplay by Sayles, based on a story by Amy Robinson; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Sonya Polonsky; production designer, Jeffrey Townsend; produced by Griffin Dunne and Robinson; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Rosanna Arquette (Jill Rosen), Vincent Spano (Sheik), Joanna Merlin (Mrs. Rosen), Jack Davidson (Dr. Rosen), Nick Ferrari (Mr. Capadilupo), Dolores Messina (Mrs. Capadilupo), Leora Dana (Miss Vernon, Teacher), Bill Raymond (Mr. Ripeppi), Sam McMurray (Mr. McManus, Teacher), Liane Alexandra Curtis (Jody, High School Girl), Claudia Sherman (Beth, High School Girl), Marta Kober (Debra, High School Girl), Tracy Pollan (Leslie, College Girl), Rachel Dretzin (Shelly, College Girl), Susan Derendorf (Chris, College Girl), Frank Vincent (Vinnie), Robin Johnson (Joann), Gary McCleery (Rat) and Matthew Modine (Steve).


Head Over Heels (1979, Joan Micklin Silver), the director’s cut

Chilly Scenes of Winter (the title of the 1981 director’s cut of Head Over Heels) painfully chronicles the year in a man’s life after he loses his girlfriend. Painfully is my chosen word for a couple reasons. First, because Joan Micklin Silver doesn’t disguise how messed up John Heard’s character is over the break-up and is just in general. Heard’s character is either the romantic lead in a film from 1979 or he’s the prime serial killer suspect in one from 1999. He lives in a big house, sometimes alone, sometimes letting his friend (a wasted Peter Riegert) stay. He’s got a mother with issues–Gloria Grahame is fantastic–and a step-father he cannot connect with, though the step-father is always trying; the character’s natural father died when he was a child. He’s a weirdo who stalks his ex, who’s returned to her husband. Silver and Heard display all those facets honestly and instead of making for a strange viewing experience, the honestly is a welcome surprise.

The other reason I used the word “painful” is because Chilly Scenes is from a novel and Silver retains a lot of the first person narration. For a ninety-two minute film to waste as much time as this one does filling in back-story with narration from Heard, not to mention the scenes where he talks to the camera or describes how he’s feeling… At times it’s embarrassing for Heard, who does a great job otherwise, with a very difficult role. The viewer doesn’t know the truth. I hate to describe him as an unreliable narrator, but it’s obvious he’s supposed to be one. He practically wears a T-shirt proclaiming the status. Mary Beth Hurt’s character is very obviously messed up and, while the viewer isn’t supposed to think Heard’s taking advantage of her impaired condition, it’s clear she’s emotionally absent. Much like Grahame’s character, but there’s no correlation spelled out in the film. I’m not sure about the novel (though I’d guess it’s in there, in neon).

Heard and Hurt’s scenes are entertaining and full of chemistry, until Heard starts to get scary and it all goes on for too long. And to make something go on for too long in a ninety-two minute movie is something.

The best stuff in the film is the present action, not the flashback, especially the stuff with Kenneth McMillan as the stepfather. The scenes where Riegert and Heard have fun are great too. The movie needed to be centered around his developing relationships with other people, not some malarkey he narrates over and over. It’s like a bad song in a lot of ways, but all the performances are good and Silver is a fine director. She just didn’t break away from the source material enough–it’s one of those films where it might be a close adaptation, which is not the same thing as a good adaptation.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joan Micklin Silver; screenplay by Silver, based on a novel by Ann Beattie; director of photography, Bobby Byrne; edited by Cynthia Schneider; music by Ken Lauber; produced by Mark Metcalf, Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne; released by United Artists.

Starring John Heard (Charles), Mary Beth Hurt (Laura), Peter Riegert (Sam), Kenneth McMillan (Pete), Gloria Grahame (Clara), Nora Heflin (Betty), Jerry Hardin (Patterson), Tarah Nutter (Susan), Alex Johnson (Elise), Mark Metcalf (Ox), Angela Phillips (Rebecca) and Griffin Dunne (Mark).


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