Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens 01This story of a simple-minded mother and daughter, born into privilege and unable to generate the income necessary for basic survival, forces us to ask dangerous questions about social responsibility.  HBO Films enlisted two extraordinary actors, Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, to create this compelling movie, that deserves a much wider audience than what the cable channel can generate.

Grey Gardens 02Based on historical events, this film tells the story of Edith Bouvier Beale (Lange), aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy/Onasis (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her daughter, also named Edith (Barrymore).  For simplicity, I’ll use the film’s reference of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” to distinguish the two characters.  Most of the movie takes place in 1975, when two filmmakers, Albert and David Maysles, filmed a documentary, called Grey Gardens, the name of the East Hampton estate, on Long Island, where the two women lived, but there are also flashbacks through their lives leading up to that time, beginning in 1936.

Big Edie (Edith Bouvier, sister of John Vernou Bouvier III, Jacqueline’s father) was a lady of high society who married New York businessman Phelan Beale (Ken Howard).  They settled on the Long Island estate of Grey Gardens and had several children, Little Edie being the oldest.  In 1936, as a young woman, Edie decides that she wants to become an actress and singer.  Although not overly talented, her energetic, bubbly personality could have carried her quite far, but both her father and mother prevented it from happening.  Phelan, quite aware of her simple-minded personality, thinks that she should marry a wealthy man who can take care of her, while Big Edie wants to keep her at home at Grey Gardens, where she can help to entertain their endless parties.  Big Edie is herself a singer and wants nothing more than to sip champagne, sing, and entertain.

Frustrated with the way his wife throws away their money, and struggling himself in the Depression era economy, Phelan takes Little Edie to New York City, where he tries to get her to stay within her allowance and find a husband.  She is more concerned with getting an audition, but falls in love with a married man, tycoon Julius Krug (Daniel Baldwin).  When Phelan learns of this relationship, he forces Little Edie to return to Grey Gardens.  With a big audition coming up, she drives back into the city and tries to see Julius, who becomes enraged that she might ruin his marriage.

Utterly dejected, she returns to take care of her mother at Grey Gardens.  Suffering from a nervous disease, exasperated by seeing her life fall apart, Little Edie loses all of her hair and takes to covering her head in scarves and blouses, creating her own unique look.  Ultimately, Phelan can no longer support their lifestyle.  He is disgusted by the continual round of parties and he divorces Big Edie.  When he dies, he leaves her the Grey Gardens estate and a limited trust for the survival of his ex-wife and daughter.  Gradually, all of their servants and friends leave until they are completely alone.

The older sons urge Big Edie to sell Grey Gardens so that she and Little Edie will have enough money to live on once the trust expires, but she feels that estate is her home, all she has left, and she refuses to sell.  With no one to maintain it, the estate begins to fall apart.  Big Edie adopts lots of cats and raccoons wander the house picking through the trash.  At last, the trust expires and there is no longer any income.  Scrounging for food and without heat, the two women barely survive the harsh New York winters, listening on a little radio as Jacqueline marries John F. Kennedy, survives his assassination, and marries Aristotle Onasis.

Neighbors complain about the stink emanating from the property and eventually city inspectors come to condemn the property, but the women carry on in spite of it.  The attention of the city brings a photographer to the house and Little Edie invites him in to take their pictures and when the word gets out that Jacqueline’s family is living in complete poverty and filth, she comes to visit them.  Fondly remembering the gay days of her aunt and cousin, she contributes the money to enable them to survive, hiring local contractors to clean up the house, fix broken windows, haul out their rusting old car, and provide for them going into the future.

When the Maysles show up with the idea of doing a documentary, Little Edie embraces it as an opportunity to showcase her talents to the world.  In the film, she sings and dances, argues with her mother, shows them around the property and sees a future in which she can finally escape Grey Gardens for good.  Big Edie, who has depended on her daughter so long, allows Little Edie to go to the premier and finally accepts that her daughter will have to go out into the world.

Directed by Michael Sucsy and written by Sucsy and Patricia Rozema, the script takes a great deal from the real lives of the two women, but especially from Little Edie.  Her surviving letters and journals were used by the director to flesh out the details of her life and used very successfully in the movie.  The camera is non-intrusive in the storytelling and fragments of the documentary have been recreated to great effect, intercut with the regular action.

Jessica Lange is terrific as Big Edie, showing a great range as we see the character grow from a woman of around forty into her old age.  A consistent and marvelous performance.

However, Drew Barrymore really steals the movie.  Her Little Edie, although every bit as simple-minded as her mother, is given an amazing degree of nuance that allows her to touch us with her own tragedy, yet soar with her indomitable spirit.  If anyone ever doubts that Barrymore is not one of the best female actors working today, please refer them to this movie, because she carries with a brilliant performance.

Nominated for 17 Emmy Awards, it won Outstanding Television Movie, Lange won for Best Actress, Howard for Best Supporting Actor, as well as winning for art direction, hair, and make-up.

Both a tragedy and a comedy, this is an emotionally engaged, beautifully written and acted movie.  I highly recommend it!

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The Descendants

Descendants Clooney and WoodleyAlthough this movie might not be suitable for all ages because of language and some adult situations, it is nonetheless a family movie.  It deals with the issues people face, both as parents and as children, and ultimately it addresses the responsibility of generations to their family.

When Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) falls into a coma as a result of a boating accident, her husband, Honolulu attorney Matt King (George Clooney), is forced to grapple with the problems his youngest daughter, 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) has developed in her mother’s absence.  Scottie has begun to act out her own insecurities by sending offensive texts, bullying her fellow students, and posting pictures of her comatose mother.  The time comes when Matt is informed by their doctor that there is no longer any hope that Elizabeth will recover, and, per her living will, will be removed from the machines that keep her alive.

Matt and Scottie fly to Kauai to pick up his oldest daughter, 17 year old Alex (Shailene Woodley) who attends a private school.  Alex is drunk when they get there, but she comes home with them.  As they argue, Alex reveals that her mother has been having an affair, so Matt sets out to find out who the man is.  Alex insists that her friend, Sid (Nick Krause) accompany them on this journey.  They must tell Elizabeth’s parents about the decision of the doctors.  Her father, Scott (Robert Forster), is a bitter man who is trying to deal with his wife’s Alzheimer’s disease.  When Sid laughs at her behavior, Scott punches him in frustration.

They discover that the man Elizabeth was having an affair with is Brian Speer ((Matthew Lillard), a wealthy real estate agent.  They discover that Brian has taken his wife Julie (Judy Greer) on a vacation to Kauai, so they follow.

All of this very personal action takes place against Matt’s family background.  He is the sole trustee of a family trust dating back to the last Hawaiian kings that includes 25,000 acres of prime land on the island of Kauai.  This trust is set to expire in seven years due to Hawaiian law and Matt’s cousins, who have squandered their inheritance are pressuring him to sell the land now so they can all cash in.  It is a matter of some concern to the Hawaiian people, as the developers who have bid on the land want to turn it into another resort.

Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska) adapted the Academy Award winning screenplay along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, who served as a consultant on the movie.  His style is characterized by simplicity so that what you see is pretty much what you get.  None of the camera work or lighting ever imposes itself on the action and that is sometimes a very good thing.

George Clooney is terrific as Matt, driving the film from beginning to end with a restrained and thoughtful performance.  Alongside him, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller are absolutely perfect as his daughters.  Wonderful performances by Judy Greer and Beau Bridges (as Matt’s cousin Hugh) add to the dramatically powerful, yet sometimes comedic story.

The movie is engaging, heartwarming, and flawlessly beautiful.  With the landscape of Hawaii constantly dominating the action, the eye is never disappointed.  In addition, the soundtrack of Hawaiian songs, befitting all of the moods of the story, is an absolutely perfect addition to the storytelling.  In spite of the subject matter, it will leave you feeling very good, comfortable, and content with the world.

In an industry that thrives on thrill-a-minute action, larger than life special effects, and a blaring soundtrack, more movies with the passion, power, and humor of The Descendants are desperately needed.  I highly recommend this film!

W

waitress adrienne shellyWaitress

Funny, touching, tough: three words that truly describe this vastly underrated 2007 comedy-drama, written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly.  Starring Keri Russell as a pie baker in a terrible marriage, this film is really about standing up for yourself and what is important in your life.


WARM-BODIES_510x317Warm Bodies

There are few films that boast a truly original premise, but Warm Bodies is one of them.  What genre is it?  Well, it’s the only zombie romantic comedy I’ve ever seen.  Written and directed by Jonathon Levine, it stars Nicholas Hoult as a zombie boy who falls in love with a human girl, played by Theresa Palmer.  Great fun!


we_bought_a_zoo_pWe Bought a Zoo!

We Bought A Zoo! is a friendly little movie released in 2011, based on the memoirs of the same title by Benjamin Mee, who bought his own zoo in England.  Starring Matt Damon and Scarlet Johansson as Benjamin and his Zookeeper, the movie features an amazingly cute performance by Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Benjamin’s daughter Rosie.


Words and Pictures Juliette BinocheWords and Pictures

Which is more important: words or pictures?

This is at the core of this powerful 2013 film about education and artistic expression.  The script by Gerald DiPego is extremely well written and the direction by Fred Schepisi is outstanding, but the real reason for this movie’s success is in the two great performances by Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as the two teachers who inspire their students to understand and to achieve more than mere talent can produce.


R

RachelGettingMarried_9Rachel Getting Married

This is a film that is uncertain of its genre.  It starts out and has the feel throughout of a slice of life movie, yet, underneath, a great tragedy is struggling to get out, and, at the end, it bursts into a kind of feel-good film.


realitybitesReality Bites

This 1994 movie, written by Helen Childress and directed by Ben Stiller, touches on a number of issues for young people, including attachment to brands, rejection of previous generations, employment difficulties, and romantic angst.  Highly successful at the time, much of the movie can be said to be just as valid for today’s young adults as it was when released.


Rear-Window-pic-2Rear Window

A nation of Peeping Toms.  That’s us, according to home care nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Rear Window.  She’s complaining to photographer L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) as he sits in his wheelchair staring out the rear window of his apartment in Greenwich Village.


Goldsworthy 01Rivers and Tides

Andy Goldsworthy

Working with Time

The violent colors of autumn leaves, an iron-rich rock that turns water blood red, blackened stalks, great slabs of ice, thorns, chipped rocks: these are the materials that Andy Goldsworthy uses to create his ephemeral art.


Audry Hepburn Roman HolidayRoman Holiday

This classic romantic comedy is as much fun today as it was when the film was first released in 1953.  It is built around two lies of identity told to each other by the main characters so that they can spend a day together in Rome.


ruby-sparksRuby Sparks

Ruby Sparks is a brilliant 2012 romantic fantasy.  Both a comedy and a drama, it never falls into the genre of romantic comedy, but blazes its own original, fantastic trail.  Written by Zoe Kazan and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the film has a single, organic arc that shoots into the sky like a brilliant firework, ultimately exploding into fragments that all make perfect sense.

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About NothingIf you buy the cliché that young people who argue and harp at each other are actually flirting, then William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing might have been the first great play to use it.  In Joss Whedon’s modern dress adaptation, he has whittled the play to under two hours and presented it in a witty original format.

The story concerns two young lovers who are both possessed of too much wit for their own good and their sharp tongues frequently cut others to bits, but none moreso than themselves, for Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) constantly cut each other to ribbons.  After sleeping together, the two part ways, then, when the victorious army returns from the war, they continue as if nothing had happened.

Beatrice lives with her uncle, Leonato (Clark Gregg), who is the Governor of Messina.  Although they are excessively wealthy, she shares a room with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese).  The Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) comes to visit, bringing with him his disgraced brother, Don John (Sean Maher), and the celebrated war hero, Count Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick.  No sooner have they arrived at this beautiful villa than Claudio reveals that he is deeply in love with Hero.  Now that the war is over, he wants to marry her and asks Benedick’s advice.  A confirmed bachelor, Benedick can only speak of himself, stating that he will never get married, that it is an odious state that can only ruin a man.  Unperturbed, Claudio tells Don Pedro about his love and the Prince volunteers to intercede with her at the costume party later that night.  He is successful and the marriage is set for a week later.

Don John has brought along two of his associates to help him plot revenge on the lot of them, his girlfriend, Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and a vicious young man named Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark).

For his own amusement, Don Pedro hatches a plot to bring Beatrice and Benedick together: he and the men will have a conversation that Benedick will overhear in which they opine about Beatrice’s secret love for Benedick.  Meanwhile, Hero and her maidservant, Margaret (Ashley Johnson) will do the same for Beatrice, letting her know that Benedick is desperately in love with her, but is afraid to tell her because of her acid tongue.

When Don John hears of the intended marriage between Claudio and Hero, he tries to find some way to derail the marriage.  Borachio has the answer.  He has been involved in a relationship with Margaret and he can set up a scene where she dresses in Hero’s clothing and they make love in Hero’s room, so that Claudio will believe Hero is unfaithful.

The night before the wedding, local security chief, Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) has set out the night watch.  Claudio, Don Pedro, and Don John all witness what they assume to be Hero making love with a stranger and Claudio decides to humiliate Hero by exposing her at the wedding.  Later that night, Borachio and Conrade are smoking a joint outside as Borachio brags about how he set up the Count Claudio for a fall, when Dogberry’s watch finds them, having overheard Borachio’s confession of villainy.  Arrested, Borachio and Conrade are brought in for questioning.  Dogberry has a few problems with English in that he frequently says exactly the opposite of what he means, thus confusing the two during their “interrogation.”

Intrigued by what they have heard, each of the other’s secret love, Benedick and Beatrice come together and discover that they really, truly are in love.  They pledge themselves to marry.

At Hero’s wedding, Claudio goes through with his threat and roughly accuses Hero of infidelity before the entire assembled wedding party.  He and Don Pedro race away and Hero collapses of shock.  The minister comes up with a plan that Hero should pretend to be dead, then Claudio will regret his actions and when he finds out she’s alive, they’ll marry anyway.  Beatrice, livid with anger over Claudio’s actions, forces Benedick into a duel with Claudio to prove his love to her.  Benedick confronts Claudio, telling him that Hero is dead and challenging him to a duel which will take place later.

Before there can be more mayhem and mischief, Dogberry brings Borachio and Conrade to Leonato and reveals that Hero was not immoral on the night before her wedding.  And so, there is a double wedding at the end.

There are many things to be loved in this modern day version of the Shakespeare classic.  For one thing, many aspects of the story are clear as a bell, rather than buried in pages of language.  Whedon has created a beautiful black and white modern world for this play to be set in and it looks beautiful, more like a classic French film than anything American.  The actors are all extremely sharp and the characters are extremely well-drawn.  Good, young actors contribute a  great deal to the success of this movie.  Both the men and women are incredibly handsome or beautiful throughout the movie.  I don’t think there is one “normal” looking person in the film, which is something that normally bothers me a great deal.  Does everyone always have to be supernaturally beautiful?  Apparently so.

The movie is quite funny, for the most part, although at times the black and white medium makes it feel like the story is a bit darker than it actually is.  Some of the parts are a bit overdone, such as Benedick’s extremely foolish eavesdropping on the conversation that sets him up with Beatrice.  Fillion plays Dogberry a little low-key for me and many of the lines that are funny in Shakespeare just look a little dumb with Fillion’s dry delivery.

As with all modern dress versions of Shakespeare, language is a problem.  I give full credit to Joss Whedon for doing an excellent job of cutting and compressing the play to get it down into very good length, but when when someone who is apparently modern gives out with “thee” and “thine” and “by my troth” it just doesn’t remotely ring true and frankly, it seems ludicous.  From the DVD special features, it seems that this project was put together very quickly using Whedon’s friends who had often read Shakespeare together as a fun thing to do.  Perhaps if it had been given a little more preparation, Whedon might have rewritten Shakespeare even a bit further and brought the language into line with the way we talk.  But if they just wanted to film friends doing Shakespeare, I guess it wouldn’t be Shakespeare without the language.

This isn’t really Whedon’s fault.  Many others have attempted to set Shakespeare in a modern day environment and each of them ultimately fail because Shakespeare’s language is over 400 years old and it sounds archaic and looks dumb when spoken by people dressed like us.  Much Ado About Nothing is far more successful than most attempts and I found it to be a highly entertaining, well-acting, well-cut film.

Even so, it requires a willing suspension of disbelief that is way beyond my own rich fantasy life.

The Graduate

Graduate 01“Hello, darkness, my old friend… I’ve come to talk with you again…”

Packed like a factory assembled doll among a throng of passengers, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) sits anonymously on an airplane about to land in Los Angeles.  As “The Sound of Silence” plays, he steps up onto a conveyor belt, his figure black against a white wall, as if he were on an assembly line about to be delivered for final packaging.

A recent graduate of a prestigious east coast college, Ben has no idea what to do with himself, no idea what he wants to do with himself.  He feels lost, adrift.  His parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) hold a party to celebrate his graduation, but it is attended only by their wealthy friends, not one person his own age.  Lying in bed, in front of his fish tank, he stares blankly out into the world.  Forced to attend the party, he searches for some escape, but is cornered by a man who has only one word for him: plastics.

Retreating to his room, his privacy is broken by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s law partner (Murray Hamilton), who nearly forces him to give her a ride home.  Getting him inside on the pretense that she needs the lights on, she fixes him a drink.  Ben figures out that she’s trying to seduce him and attempts to escape, but can’t seem to get away.  Mrs. Robinson then invites him up into the bedroom of her daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) to see the girl’s portrait.  She is currently away at school attending the University of California-Berkeley.  Mrs. Robinson begins to undress in spite of Ben’s obvious nervousness, but is interrupted by the return of Mr. Robinson.  Ben quickly runs downstairs and sits with his drink when the man comes in the front door.  Mr. Robinson encourages him to date Elaine when she returns to L.A. on a school break.

Graduate 02At her request, Ben calls up Mrs. Robinson and she agrees to meet him at a hotel.  Overcome with nervousness, Ben goes through with his tryst and begins a summer of laziness, lying around in the pool during the day and meeting Mrs. Robinson for sex at night.  Gradually, he begins to want more from their relationship and forces Mrs. Robinson to begin talking about herself.  When the conversation comes around to Elaine, she forbids him to date her.  Ben rebels and they each say hurtful things, but when Mrs. Robinson begins to dress to leave, he apologizes and they continue their sexual meetings.

After Elaine has returned, Ben’s parents force him into dating her, over Mrs. Robinson’s objections.  In order to make it a horrible date, Ben takes Elaine to a strip joint and the stripper on stage twirls her pasties directly over Elaine’s head as silent tears fall from her eyes.  Humiliated, Elaine runs out and Ben follows her, feeling horrible about what he’s done.  He catches her, apologizes profusely, and they go out for burgers.  Whether through guilt or genuine attraction, Ben falls for Elaine and she seems to be falling for him.  He makes another date with her, but when he pulls up at the house, in a rainy downpour, Mrs. Robinson gets into his car instead, once again forbidding him to see Elaine, this time with the threat that she will tell Elaine about their affair.

Graduate 03Ben runs back to the house and reveals to Elaine that he has been having an affair with her mother.  Appalled, she throws him out and tells him she never wants to see him again.  Ben watches from a distance as she returns to Berkeley, then he follows her there and finally gets her to admit that she loves him, too.  Mr. Robinson shows up at Ben’s apartment and forbids the relationship, leading Elaine to leave school and marry her boyfriend.  Frantically driving back and forth, Ben finds the church, but he can’t get in.  Running up to the second story, he looks down as the wedding vows are concluded and begins to scream her name.  Seeing the vicious faces of those around her, Elaine screams back Ben’s name.  Using a cross to fight off the angry wedding party, Ben and Elaine escape, getting into the back of a bus and riding away.

The Graduate, released in 1967, still stands today as one of the best films ever made.  The screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry is based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Charles Webb.  Produced by Lawrence Turman and directed by Mike Nichols, the movie was delayed for several years because they simply could not find the right cast.  Almost every big name in Hollywood was considered for every major role, but no one seemed to fit.

Actresses considered for the role of Elaine included Patty Duke, Faye Dunaway, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Raquel Welch, Joan Collins, Carroll Baker, Candice Bergen, Goldie Hawn, Jane Fonda, Ann-Margret, Elizabeth Ashley, Carol Lynley, Sue Lyon, Yvette Mimieux, Suzanne Pleshette, Lee Remick, Pamela Tiffin, Julie Christie, and Tuesday Weld. 

Robert Osborne of TCM said, “Mike Nichols wanted Doris Day for Mrs. Robinson, Robert Redford for Benjamin Braddock, and Gene Hackman for Mr. Robinson.”

Other actresses considered for Mrs. Robinson included Jeanne Moreau, Joan Crawford, Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Patricia Neal, Geraldine Page, Claire Bloom, Angie Dickinson, Sophia Loren, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Susan Hayward, Anouk Aimee, Jennifer Jones, Deborah Kerr, Eva Marie Saint, Rosalind Russell, Simone Signoret, Jean Simmons, Lana Turner, Eleanor Parker, Anne Baxter, Shelley Winters, Angela Lansbury, Natalie Wood, and Ava Gardner.  All were either turned down, refused to appear nude, or were unimpressed with the part.  Anne Bancroft, an accomplished stage and screen actress, wife of director Mel Brooks, took the part even though she was only seven years older than Dustin Hoffman

Graduate 05Hoffman and Ross were both chosen as Ben and Elaine when they tested together.  He was a 29 year old New York actor who was virtually unknown outside the live theater, but Turman brought him to Los Angeles to test.  Even though he was very much against the type they wanted for Ben, Nichols liked him very much and gave him the role.

The Graduate was also Nichols’ first film, although he was very well known from his Broadway successes.  It is surprising that a stage director should create one of the best films ever made in his first effort.  Maybe the long wait while they searched for the right cast gave him the extra time to craft the film into the beauty that it became.  Every single shot is lovingly assembled and extraordinarily powerful.  Hitchcock had mastered the art of framing long before this film was made, but Nichols uses camera angles in an even more powerful way.  The most iconic shot in the film is, of course, the one that shows Ben framed behind Mrs. Robinson’s leg, sheathed in a black stocking, but it is only one of hundreds of nearly perfect shots.

The creative use of dark and light in a color film was nearly unprecedented at the time.  For example, there is a scene early in the seduction when Mrs. Robinson is sitting at the bar in her home and Ben nervously paces back and forth in front of her.  It is shot from behind Ben who appears only as a black silhouette moving with a kind of nervy relentlessness back and forth, revealing Mrs. Robinson sitting with one leg propped on a bar stool, allowing Ben a tantalizing view.

Mirror shots are used to extreme advantage, the most obvious one when Mrs. Robinson takes Ben to Elaine’s room to seduce him.  As he looks at the portrait of Elaine, Mrs. Robinson appears nude in the reflection off of the glass.  Brilliant!  Not only is it a visually stunning image, but it also points up the terrible situation that Ben will be in later when he has to choose between the mother and daughter.

The use of music and sound is also brilliant.  “The Sound of Silence” is such a perfect representation of Ben’s state of mind at the beginning of the movie that the simple image of Ben’s head framed against the aquarium as it plays tells a whole story without any dialogue whatsoever.  The other Paul Simon songs, performed by Simon and Garfunkel, are super appropriate and set the mood wherever they are used.  The song “Mrs. Robinson” was adapted by Paul Simon especially for the film and it went on to become a huge hit.  Quite often Nichols uses silence itself to punctuate that deep, dark mood that Ben brings into the movie, relieving it with the beautiful Paul Simon melodies.

The acting is all superb.  Dustin Hoffman is wonderful as Ben, creating all kinds of great little mannerisms that make him a complete person, not the least of which is the short falsetto “Humpf” that comes out when he is particularly nervous.  Anne Bancroft gives a great performance as Mrs. Robinson, terribly restrained, yet allowing the viewer to see how great her own boredom is and how much her affair with Ben means to her, despite the fact that it is exclusively sexual.  Although Katherine Ross’s part is not huge, she does a great deal with it, especially in the scene where Ben reveals he’s been having an affair with her mother.

In addition, the supporting roles are extremely well done, most especially William Daniels as Mr. Robinson.  The cast list isn’t dense, but there are also a large number of cameo appearances, including Buck Henry, Alice Ghostley, Elaine May, Mike Farrell, and Richard Dreyfuss.

In spite of Ben’s heavy attitude coming into the film, it is really a first rate comedy and also a feel-good movie.  Although it was made in 1967, the comedy isn’t dated at all.  In fact, it could have been made last year and still hold up to scrutiny.  The only real reference to the time it was made was when Ben gets a room in Berkeley, his landlord tells him that he won’t tolerate any “agitators.”  In places, the costumes or hairstyles may give away the time, but they are nearly invisible, unlike many other period movies where they are obvious.  It comes in at under two hours and it doesn’t feel long at all.  In fact, it moves really fast.

The only “error” I found in the movie is that when Ben is driving north to see Elaine in Berkeley, he crosses the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, which he wouldn’t have done without a specific purpose.  It doesn’t really make sense in an otherwise perfectly crafted movie.

All of the parts of this film work so harmoniously that it should stand the test of time going forward in the future.  Many other good films may be made, but I believe that The Graduate will remain one of the best films ever made.  It certainly makes my Top Ten.  Because of the adult situations, I will recommend it for mature viewers.

A brilliant, long-lasting movie with great comedy, great angst, and a feel-good ending!

Graduate 04

Dead Like Me

Dead Like MeThe Afterlife for a Grim Reaper is a pretty bizarre place in this terrific little Showtime television series that lasted two seasons.  Laced with dry, dark humor and peppered with expletives, Dead Like Me is full of fascinating, sometimes hilarious characters going about the process of reaping souls.  Sometimes, along the way, there are serious moments and a few solid observations about life and death.

Georgia “George” Lass (Ellen Muth) is an 18 year old girl who has just dropped out of college.  She is bored with life and avoids unhappy situations by affecting an attitude of not caring what happens.  She is living at home with her mother, Joy (Cynthia Stevenson),  who is frustrated by her daughter’s apparent lack of love, father Clancy (Greg Kean), a professor at the University of Washington who is having an affair with a student and simply going through the motions at home, and her little sister Reggie (Britt McKillip), who worships her and is upset that George has cut her out of her life.

Upset with George’s lassitude, Joy sends her out to the Happy Time employment agency to get a job so she can get an apartment and move out.  At the Happy Time agency, she is a little freaked out by the receptionist, Crystal (Crystal Dahl) and the almost overbearingly happy Delores Herbig (Christine Willes), but she takes a part time job there and begins work as a file as a file clerk.  On her very first lunch break, unaware that the Mir Space Station’s deteriorating orbit is breaking it into pieces, she relaxes in a plaza when the Space Station’s toilet seat comes hurtling through the atmosphere and blows her into a hundred little pieces.  Although she wasn’t aware of it, a Grim Reaper (they look like normal people) shucks her soul from her body with a simple touch.  Standing around watching the fallout from her death, George is approached by Rube (Mandy Patinkin) who tells her that the man who just reaped her soul has filled his quota and she must take his place as a Grim Reaper.  She will also have a quota of souls to reap before she will be able to move on, but she won’t know what that quota is until she reaches the magic number.  Rube heads up a small group who work the External Influence Division, assigned to reap the souls of violent deaths, suicides, murders and so on.  She has a new body now that doesn’t look like her old one and, unfortunately, she must get a job and a place to live because there is no paycheck for reaping.

An English reaper, Mason (Callum Blue) takes her to a penthouse where an execution-style multiple murder has taken place and he tells her she can live there temporarily as he goes through pants pockets removing money.  The other reapers in her little band include Betty (Rebecca Gayheart), a carefree soul who takes pictures of the people whose soul she’s about to reap, and Roxy (Jasmine Guy), who works as a meter maid and has a no-nonsense approach to reaping souls.  There are also little creatures called Gravelings that scurry around arranging the accidents or situations that actually kill people.  In general, the reapers try to avoid these ugly little creatures as they cause a great deal of mayhem when their patience is tested.  This little group meets at various times at Der Waffle Haus restaurant, where Rube hands out their assignments on yellow Post-It notes, giving only initials, last name, place and ETD (Estimated Time of Death).  The waitress, Kiffany (Patricia Idlette), the cooks, the patrons, and even the food play a major role in the comedy.

George rebels against her new state of being at first, testing Rube’s patience as she tries to save a little girl who is about to die in a train crash.  However, Rube tells her that if the soul is not reaped, it will wither and die, leaving a hollow, unhappy person.  If the person does die without their soul being reaped, it continues to live on inside the dead body, which is a terrible thing to do to anyone.  Gradually, George begins to accept her state of being, but she can’t seem to let go of her family, repeatedly visiting them and watching as Joy grieves and Reggie acts out her sorrow by stealing toilet seats all over town.

The creator of the series, Bryan Fuller, brought a wicked sense of humor to the show and if you don’t like dark humor or if you take death too seriously, this is probably not the show for you.  I thought it was awfully funny and developed a serious addiction right from the beginning.

Ellen Muth Mandy PatinkinThe casting is excellent, beginning with Ellen Muth who was born to utter droll, witty, ironic comments, yet has the vulnerability to pull off the more serious moments, too.  Her character drives all of the action and she handles it deftly, leading us through the entire series.  George’s foil is Rube, played brilliantly by the multi-talented Mandy Pitinkin, making his character into a father figure for all of the reapers, a man who is much deeper than his surface appearance.  Blue, Gayheart, and Guy all offer sharp, well-rounded characters, although after the fifth episode, Gayheart’s character is replaced by Daisy Adair (Laura Harris), a former actress with a seriously sexy history, but who brings a deeper level of vulnerability than one might expect.

Cynthia Stevenson, who is always terrific, comes through again with a deep, well-layered performance as Joy and Brett McKillip is endearing as the angst-ridden Reggie.  Christine Willes is hilarious as Delores Herbig “as in, her big brown eyes” and so is Crystal Dahl as the spooky receptionist.

Clever, creative scripts keep the story moving along and even though each episode could be taken as a stand-alone episode, the story, especially during the first season does move forward from one episode to another.

Quirky, extremely funny, and very well written and directed, Dead Like Me is a terrific series full of dry, dark humor.  I highly recommend it for mature viewers.

Words and Pictures

Words and Pictures Clive-Owen Which is more important: words or pictures?

This is at the core of this powerful 2013 film about education and artistic expression.  The script by Gerald DiPego is extremely well written and the direction by Fred Schepisi is outstanding, but the real reason for this movie’s success is in the two great performances by Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as the two teachers who inspire their students to understand and to achieve more than mere talent can produce.

Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) teaches writing at Croyden, a high end  preparatory school in Maine.  A professional writer himself, Jack is flirting with losing his job because of functional alcoholism and a lapse of productivity, having failed to publish in quite a few years.  In addition, the school literary magazine which he edits has gone downhill, producing flat, uninspired writing and nothing original from him.  His principal, Rashid (Navid Negahban), confers with head of the governing board, Elspeth (Amy Brenneman) about Jack’s conduct and they give him a warning that his status will be reviewed at the next meeting.

Words and Pictures Juliette BinocheThe new Honors Art teacher, well-known painter Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), who suffers from severe rheumatoid arthritis and walks with the aid of a cane, challenges her students to go beyond themselves to create better art.  Using the old phrase “a picture is worth a thousands words” she tells her students that words are cheap and useless, thus fueling the “war” between the two arts at the school and inspiring the students to achieve more.

Drinking heavily and fighting to keep his job, Jack tries to write something new and inspiring, but all he can create is insipid, so he steals a poem that his son wrote and publishes it in the literary magazine as his own.  It is so good that Dina uses it to inspire her students to make drawings and painting based on it.  Three students figure prominently in this battle of the arts: Emily (Valerie Tian) an Asian painter, Cole (Josh Ssettuba) an African-American graphic artist, and Swint (Adam DiMarco), a writer and would-be cartoonist.  Swint, a show-off has a crush on shy Emily and he begins to harass her, eventually going so far as to distribute an obscene cartoon of her throughout the school.  Jack has defended Swint, but when he discovers the cartoon in Swint’s sketchbook, he turns the boy in and Swint is expelled.

When Dina gives terrific testimony of Jack’s behalf at the board meeting, his job is saved.  He brings her flowers and they consummate their simmering love, but Jack gets up in the night, finds a bottle of vodka in her refrigerator and proceeds to get drunk.  He tells her about plagiarizing the poem from his son and then, losing his balance, he falls into Dina’s most important painting, smearing it.  She throws him out and Jack must begin to confront his own problems for the first time, facing his alcoholism and trying to redeem his own spirit.

Obviously, in a movie like this, the writing is paramount and I give extremely high marks to Gerald DiPego for his literate and organic script.  Director Fred Schepisi thought his words were important enough that he was kept on the set during the filming in order to make changes himself, rather than bringing in any other writers.  But even though writing is important, this film also stands or falls based on its art and Juliette Binoche, doing her own painting, brought a sense of legitimacy by creating terrific paintings and drawings all her own.

Of course, there is no real battle between art and literature.  They are two completely different and equally valid arts.  On the surface, they would appear to be complete opposites, but, as with all creation, the goal should be the same: to touch the human heart.  This movie does that, in part, due to the organic nature of the writing and the painting that fills it.  When I say that a work of art is organic, I mean that it grows naturally out of its components.  The story in Words and Pictures has more to do with Jack’s own frailty and his dependence on alcohol.  It is that dependence that brings his life into complete disarray, despite his other endearing qualities, and it is his control of that weakness that allows him to become a complete person again.  The same is true of Delsanto’s art.  Like, Jack, she has floundered for many years, not because of a lack of inspiration, but because her own degenerating body has had her full attention.  She needed something to wake her up and Jack’s challenge is what brings her back to life creatively.  Her art grows beyond her own injured body to become something beyond what she had been capable of.

Writing an organic script that is completely natural is not an easy process, but DiPego has created a real beauty here.

Clive Owen drives the film with his performance.  The center of the film, he is realistic in every way as an American teacher.  His control of the language, his phrasing, and his maniacal love of good writing is infectious and he seems to be a terrific teacher.  Likewise, Juliette Binoche gives a wonderful performance as Delsanto, nuanced, layered, and impressive.

This film has a strange, emotional power that elevates in the same way that Stand and Deliver moves one to aspire.  Immensely satisfying! I highly recommend this movie!

The Breakfast Club

Breakfast ClubYelling one minute, giggling the next, while cool music plays throughout.  Welcome to The Breakfast Club, John Hughes’ 1985 comedy-drama about five teenagers confined to a Saturday detention in the Shermer High School library in Shermer, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

Each one of the five kids represents a different kind of high school culture.  Although wrestler Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez), teen beauty Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald), and brainy Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) come from wealthy families, they each represent a separate segment of high school society.  Likewise, rebellious John Bender (Judd Nelson) and spooky Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) come from the wrong side of the tracks, but one is brash and outgoing while the other is quiet and shy.

The teacher who rides herd on the five of them is Richard “Dick” Vernon (Paul Gleason), an assistant principal who is rough and disillusioned with his profession.  The only other adult character of any consequence is the philosophical janitor, Carl Reed (John Kapelos) who enlightens both Dick and the kids.

John creates the drama as he pushes against the rich kids and makes fun of the dork, both strutting his anger at coming from a poor, ignorant family and concealing his own fear for his future.  He teases Claire about being a virgin, Andrew about being a dumb jock, and Brian about not fitting in.  As the day goes on, they gradually become friends, laughing, dancing, shouting, and opening up about their deepest truths and fears.

There isn’t much of a plot here, but that’s not important.  Most of the movie dedicates itself to the theme that in spite of outside differences, we’re all pretty much the same, a pretty good message in any time or place.  The generous ensemble script allows room for each character to bloom.

Most of the acting is excellent, although the emotional outbursts now seem a little over the top, as are the stock characters.  The movie is really excellent except when it tries to go deep.  Of the five teens, Ally Sheedy really stands out as the best and that is partly because her character doesn’t fit into a mold and partly because she infuses it with a great deal of originality.

The best part of the film is the comedy and when it’s good, it’s really laugh out loud good and it carries the movie beyond the simple teen angst that colors the drama.  A fun movie.  At an hour and a half, the timing is perfect and it is almost impossible to stop watching once you start, always a sign that a movie is doing its job.