Then Playing — Children of a Lesser God; 5 Against the House; Personality Crisis: One Night Only

Children of a Lesser God (Randa Haines, 1986). Much as I admired Children of a Lesser God at the time it was originally released, I’ve long mentally consigned it to the category of earnest nineteen-eighties dramas that probably looked fairly soft when held up against edgier fare that followed. My instinctual dismissiveness was mistaken. Adapted from a 1979 stage play by Hesper Anderson (who is co-credited on the screenplay with Mark Medoff), the film is set in and around a school for deaf children. The story follows the complicated romance between a teacher named James (William Hurt) and the school’s janitor, Sarah (Marlee Matlin), a strident young woman who’s also an alumnus of the institution. As directed by Randa Haines, the film skillfully explores the challenges that emerge in the relationship, many of them stemming from the fitful progress James makes in understanding that he has an obligation to value and understanding experiences and preferences other than his own. This is film is from right in the heart of the ten-year stretch when Hurt was at the peak of his powers, but Matlin truly dazzles, investing the character with depths of feeling and vivid personality. She fully deserved that shiny trophy she won for the role.

5 Against the House (Phil Karlson, 1955). A quartet of Korean War veterans attending college on the G.I. Bill stave off their disconsolate feelings about their lot in life by plotting a heist at a cowboy-themed Reno, Nevada casino where spent a pre-semester evening. For most of them, it seems to be little more than lark, a notion to play with rather than follow through on. That’s not the case for Brick (Brian Keith), who’s struggled with mental health issues since returning from combat. When the group’s de factor leader, Al (Guy Madison), starts to withdraw from the shared revelry of the group after committing himself romantically to nightclub singer Kay (Kim Novak), Brick cracks and forces everyone to follow through on the scheme. Phil Karlson’s film has some snappiness in its earliest scenes, when it plays as more of a slightly bawdy comedy. As the plot grows darker, 5 Against the House grows progressively duller. Even with the twist heist mechanics, novel for the era, the movie starts to take on the feel of perfunctory storytelling.

Personality Crisis: One Night Only (Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi, 2023). Merging the two main penchants of Martin Scorsese the documentarian — iconoclastic New York City icons and rock musicians that peaked in the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies — Personality Crisis: One Night Only hunkers in with David Johansen, formerly of the New York Dolls and occasional portrayer of Buster Poindexter. The film alternates between a January 2020 cabaret-style performance at the Café Carlyle and a recounting of Johansen’s varied, colorful career, often conveyed in generously doled out archival footage. Portions of the live show are engaging and Johansen is finely cantankerous storyteller, but the film never gels into a solid piece of work. The focus is drifts between ideas and interests in a way that is perhaps intended to mirror Johansen’s own distractible mien, but it comes across as aimless. It’s reminiscence without revelation. Scorsese co-directs with his usual nonfiction filmmaking partner, David Tedeschi.

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