Mike Nichols – 1931 – 2014

Comedian, stage director, and one of Hollywood’s great film directors, Mike Nichols has passed away at 83. Blasting onto the movie scene with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in the mid 1960s, a film that was nominated for nearly all the major Oscars that year (it won for actress, best supporting actress and cinematography), and closing his career with the quite underrated Charlie Wilson’s War, Nicols made accessible satire a specialty, a feat that is not easy to do. Along with Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, The Graduate, The Birdcage, Working Girl, Closer, Biloxi Blues and the pure paycheck flick Day of the Dolphin, his career made fine use of movie stars, while always finding a way to the take ‘celebrity vehicle’ out of the equation.

Along with Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch, before him, Nicols’ voice is already missed as one of the most intelligent human-comedy directors Hollywood has ever employed.

The Guardian has more.

Favorite Older Films I Saw in 2012

Always an awkward post title, but I can never seem to manage to figure out a good way to sum up the kind of list I’m presenting here. My list of Top 2012 Films is included in the Row Three group post back here, but now I want to focus on the films I enjoyed the most this year which were released prior to 2012. I should stress that this is hardly an objective list, were such a thing even possible – it’s just what I liked the best and felt most desirous to share out of my first-time watches this year, excluding 2012 releases.

What older films did you love the best in 2012?

GIRL SHY (1924)
FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE (1926)
WHY WORRY (1923)

GirlShy

I’d seen Harold Lloyd’s best-known film Safety Last before, but I really consider 2012 my crash course in his comedy, with a trio of films I saw in close succession and really convinced me for sure that he belongs in the silent comedian pantheon. Girl Shy is, in fact, my favorite new-to-me film I’ve seen all year, and thanks to its sweet romance and breathtaking final chase scene, I actually liked it more than I do Safety Last. For Heaven’s Sake, with Lloyd as a millionaire bringing in street thugs and miscreants to fill up an inner-city mission’s pews to impress the preacher’s lovely daughter, is a ton of fun, too, full of insane gags and stunts. I liked Why Worry, with Lloyd as a hypochondriac who gets mixed up in the Mexican Civil War, the least of the three, but it’s still a solid film and a whole lot of fun. With these three under my belt, chalk me up a definite Lloyd fan.

THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960)

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Sometimes Ingmar Bergman films are a bit tough for me to get into – I can appreciate their austere humanism, but they often feel remote and uninvolving to me. The Virgin Spring grabbed me immediately and didn’t let me go until I collapsed at the end breathless, like the grieving father in the story. A young girl is violated by a group of men who later unknowingly seek shelter in her father’s home, whereupon he finds out what happened and exacts retribution. But nothing is so simple in Bergman’s world, and this is a deeply thoughtful and starkly beautiful film, questioning a God who allows tragedy to happen and yet also accepting that personal vengeance may not be the best way either.

THE DRIVER (1978)

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Clearly a prototype for 2011’s Drive (a recent favorite of mine), The Driver stars Ryan O’Neal as a laconic getaway driver who’s being hunted by an arrogant cop (Bruce Dern) who wants to collar him simply because he’s never been caught. In between them are a gambling woman who may be playing both sides and a bunch of thugs who are no match for the Driver. It’s a mystery to me why this film isn’t always mentioned in the same breath with great car chase movies like Bullitt and The French Connection, because the chases here are every bit as good. Mix in the Le Samourai-esque lead character, and this film was made for me.

SOLARIS (1972)

Solaris

First of all, it took me several days to get through this meditative sci-fi film musing on love and loss. I’m not proud of that, but it can certainly be blamed on my pregnancy-related tiredness at the time rather than the film itself, although the film itself is definitely on the slow side. I actually liked the pacing and thought it worked well for the kind of heady, evocative sci-fi this is. That said, because of the viewing conditions, I had difficulty holding it all in my head at once or feeling like I had a solid grasp of it by the end. I’m already looking forward to a rewatch, upon which time I think I will appreciate it even more.

THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928)

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I know Mike Rot (and probably others) are going to tell me that even Top Five placement is not high enough for this film, and that’s probably right. The movie is an intriguing combination of austerity (sparse set design) and raw emotion (Marie Falconetti’s extraordinary face, usually seen in close-ups). I’ve seen a couple of other Dreyer films, and I generally find them a bit difficult to relate to stylistically, and I have to say I felt kind of the same tension here. I do think some rewatches will move it much higher on my list, though – it feels like the kind of film I will grow into. Also, the print on HuluPlus does not have a music track with it, and I don’t think that helped my experience.

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Movies We Watched

Sometimes we watch stuff that we want to talk just a little bit about, not a full review worth. These are those films. If any of the films reviewed are available on Netflix Instant Watch (US or Canada) or HuluPlus (US only), we’ll note that by putting a direct link below the capsule.

The Graduate

1967 USA. Director: Mike Nichols. Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross.

When it comes to classics of American cinema, I usually find myself as something of a sheep – I tend to adore the majority of the classics, oftentimes chalking my opinions up to the consensus existing for a reason. That is not to say that I have not disliked any classic, but rather that I am more willing to overlook the faults and embrace the sense and mood of the halcyon days. With The Graduate, however, I was decidedly underwhelmed, and mostly disappointed. It is essentially a two-part film, half brilliant, half pathetic. The relationship between Ben (Hoffman) and Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft) is wonderfully executed, with their almost palpable shared desire and intimacy. Their interactions – in particular, their reactions to each other’s ebbs and flows within the scope of the affair – are not only believable, but almost voyeuristically so. And, in general, the filmmaking is quite good. However, as the story ventures into the relationship between Ben and Elaine (Ross), the film loses itself in a haze of poor pacing and inexplicable character actions. The crux of the film, at least for me, is this unexpected romance between Ben and Elaine … a romance that is never really explained or explored, finding itself out of place. As a result, I am left with a wholly unsatisfactory climax and conclusion, left wanting for the promise birthed by what came before.
– DOMENIC

Netflix Instant

The Turin Horse

2011 Hungary. Director: Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky. Starring: János Derzsi, Erika Bók, Mihály Kormos.

Over a blank screen we’re told the famous tale of Nietzsche seeing a horse being beaten in the streets of Turin, running to the horse, and throwing his arms around its neck, weeping – the beginning of a mental breakdown from which he never fully recovered. But what of the horse, asks Béla Tarr, and of its owners? Instead of the heady philosophy or dramatic psychosis you’d expect from a story that begins with Nietzsche, Tarr gives us a mundane, human, and deeply moving glimpse into a very difficult and despairing existence. The man and his daughter depend on the horse for their lives, such as they are – and we see them throughout a week as the horse, stubborn because of illness, gets weaker and weaker and their own hold on existence gets more and more tenuous. You don’t (or shouldn’t) sit down to a Tarr film without knowing what you’re getting into, and this one is nearly two and a half hours long of basically watching these two people do mundane chores over and over in very long takes. When things are so much the same, the differences become enormous, and Tarr maximizes that by varying camera placements, or by using slight changes in demeanor or action to telegraph the changing states of mind and being of these extremely taciturn people. Settling into the film’s rhythm yields an experience that makes mundanity into something transcendent, and by the end, seeing these two simply sitting at their roughhewn table was enough to bring me to the brink of tears. Tarr has said this will be his final film, and if that’s true, it’s a pretty masterful work to go out on.
-JANDY

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Cinema Classics: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

[Originally published on The Frame as part of a Blind Spots series addressing films on my List of Shame]

This has been an extremely difficult review to sit down and write, largely because this film elicited such strong and conflicting reactions from me both while viewing it, and thinking back on it afterwards. I have never felt so in turmoil about a film, even while in the midst of watching it, my thoughts and emotions swirling back and forth even within the same scene. Loving it, hating it, sympathizing, being repulsed, being moved, understanding, feeling detached, exasperated, annoyed, intrigued, heartbroken, unresolved. Of course, maybe that’s utterly appropriate, given that the film is about a couple constantly at each other’s throats, except when they’re in each other’s arms, who drag a younger couple along with them on a night of “fun and games.” But what is the game, and what are the rules, and who’s having fun? The answers to those questions shift as often as my emotions did, and with as little warning or explanation.

George and Martha are a middle-aged academic couple, respectively a professor in history and the daughter of the university’s long-time president. As the film opens, they’re wending their way home after a university party, chatting quietly while lovely and calm background music plays. But even at this most peaceful point in the movie, they quickly fall into a rhythm of argument, clearly their default mode of interacting with each other. As they return home, Martha quotes one of Bette Davis’s campiest characters, proclaiming “What a dump,” then hounding George to tell what movie it’s from. At this point, the movie was already grating on me pretty badly, and it’s only getting started!

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Short Takes Vol. 1

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Clearly I’m getting behind on the New Hollywood marathon; I’ve actually been watching a good bit, but not finding the right things to say to write about them. So I’m just going to lump together some short thoughts on the films that didn’t inspire me to write a whole post about, or films that others reviewed or are planning to review.

The Graduate

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This is one of the few films on this marathon’s master list that I’ve seen before, but I wanted to rewatch it because I was pretty sure I had missed something the first time around. That first time, I was just barely eighteen and was sure that college would sort out any remaining lack of certainty I had about my future career and life. Four years later, it hadn’t, and I found myself, like Benjamin Braddock, unsure what to do after graduation and drifting a bit, trying to find something to latch onto. I think when I first saw it, I had difficulty understanding Benjamin’s indecision and willingness to just float along after graduating, basically falling into an affair with Mrs. Robinson (the wife of his father’s business partner) because he didn’t have much else better to do. This time, it all worked and fit together much better for me.

The inclusion of Simon and Garfunkel songs was perfect, and made me think about how influential The Graduate, with its detached main character, soundtrack, and mood, has been on films since – especially Indiewood quirky coming-of-age stories. Half of R3 will strangle me for saying this, but there seems a strong connection to Garden State (though even I would agree that The Graduate is a stronger film). My only beef is that the Berkeley sequence, when Benjamin goes to try to win Elaine, loses some interest and waffles a bit too much. On the other hand, the very last shot that’s often berated (by some) is exactly right.

M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller after the jump.

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Unwittingly He Trained a Dolphin to Kill the President of the United States…

Ah, Digg – some times you have your moments. From multiple Academy Award winning director, Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf, The Graduate, Closer), Academy Award nominated writer Buck Henry (The Graduate, Catch-22, To Die For) and starring Academy Award Winner George C. Scott (Dr. Strangelove, Patton, Man getting Hit by Football) comes this film which I would quite like to see, simply because it exists.

Auteur Essay: Matt Zoller Seitz on Wes Anderson

This superb (and thorough) look at Wes Anderson‘s auteur influences was mentioned on the current episode of the Cinecast. The House Next Door founder, freelance writer and film director Matt Zoller Seitz narrates and edits a collection of side by side and annotated scenes from Wes Anderson’s filmography and connects the director’s aesthetic to Hal Ashby, Mike Nichols, Charles Schultz, Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles, François Truffaut and the written work of J.D. Salinger. High praise indeed, but the key here is that Anderson re-invents his influences into his own auteur stamp, one that has been imitated (From Napoleon Dynamite to Garden State), yet nevertheless remains instantly recognizable about the crowd.

The series: The Substance of Style, is in 5 parts, ending with a fully annotated playing of the sublime opening prologue of The Royal Tenenbaums.

The First Part is tucked under the seat.

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Extended Thoughts: Closer

“What do you have to do to get some fucking intimacy around here?” – Dr. Larry


closer android

After my third viewing of Closer I suddenly became aware of an implicit subtext which made me completely re-evaluate the resonance of the story. Intuitively I had been aware the film was special, prior to my ability to even crudely articulate it, but on this most recent viewing my intuition had transformed into conscious awareness.

An early clue for me was the Time magazine blurb on the back of the dvd, which brazenly declares: “At last a love story for adults”. A love story for adults? Before Sunset sure, Annie Hall definitely, but Closer? Most criticisms towards this film have centered on the complete lack of intimacy between the romantic leads and the unsympathetic traits each of the four characters possess at one point or another throughout the film, leaving our romanticized notions of love unfulfilled as moviegoers. Closer is about love insofar as it portrays a world of emotionally stunted individuals all striving for it, and therefore it is actually about the absence of love, love as an ideal which is like a fifth character forever estranged from the central drama. Were it to be truly deemed a love story for adults it would have to be concluded that it is a very pessimistic and ultimately unsatisfying one. Would you like to know more…?