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.

Notorious

Notorious 03The sexiest and most mature of all Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Notorious is also one of his most suspenseful movies.  It’s a torchy love story set among dangerous ex-Nazis in Rio de Janeiro, with Ingrid Bergman putting her life in danger to prove to the American agent she loves that she has become an honest woman.  Beautifully shot in black and white, all of Hitchcock’s mastery drives a story that is thrilling right up to the end.

This review contains plot spoilers.

When her German immigrant father is convicted of treason in 1945, beautiful Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) goes on a binge.  Her reputation as a party girl has been well earned, so American agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) tries to keep some distance as he prepares to recruit her to spy on her father’s old friends, but he can’t seem to help getting involved with her.  Although she claims not to care about it, Devlin has wiretapped proof that she is a patriot and so he gets her to fly to Rio de Janeiro for a job.

By the time she is settled in Rio, Alicia is in love Devlin and she goes off of alcohol and dedicates herself to him, but he doesn’t quite believe her.  He is still suspicious that she will take another lover when she can.

Her job is to hook up Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), one of her father’s friends who made advances to her in the past.  She practically begs Devlin to tell her not to take the job, but he thinks that she should refuse it on her own.  This test of wills leads her to accept the challenge.  She is successful with Sebastian, but he keeps seeing her with Devlin and suspects that she may not really love him.  He dares her to prove her loyalty by marrying him.  Alicia brings her dilemma to the American agents, all of whom want to leave the decision up to her, except for Devlin.  In love with her and angry that she has actually taken Sebastian for a lover, he advises her to go through with the marriage.

Notorious 01Alicia becomes convinced that whatever Sebastian is hiding is kept in his wine cellar, but he has the only to it.  On Devlin’s urging, she steals the key and plans to investigate during a large party.  She invites Devlin and the two of them sneak away during the party to look in the wine cellar.  He accidentally breaks a wine bottle and it is full of uranium.  Although he cleans up the mess and they make their escape, Sebastian has discovered that his key is missing when he goes to get more wine.  He sees Devlin and Alicia together and they kiss to cover their escape from the wine cellar.  Sebastian sees them and realizes that Alicia doesn’t really love him, then, when his key appears on his key ring the next morning, he realizes that she is a spy.

At the urging of his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), they begin a slow process of poisoning Alicia.  When she grows more and more ill, she cannot make a meeting with Devlin and he becomes suspicious.  He goes to the house to investigate and finds her deathly ill.  Confessing his love for her, he takes her from the house right in front of all of the Germans.  Sebastian begs to go along with them, but Devlin refuses, leaving Sebastian to face the wrath of his ex-Nazi friends.

In its restored version, this black and white film is absolutely beautiful.  Ingrid Bergman was made for the black and white film medium and the camera certainly loves her beauty.  Alicia is a very complicated role and her performance is dynamic and powerful.  Likewise, Cary Grant plays Devlin as a very complicated man and gives probably the best performance of his career, nuanced and detailed.  Hitchcock uses his camera masterfully, creating some of the best shots of any of his films.

Notorious 02The suspense in this movie is palpable, at times so thick that it is almost impossible to watch, but the story is so compelling it is difficult to turn away.  The kisses between Bergman and Grant are incredibly sexy.  In one shot, they kiss, nuzzle, talk, and kiss over and over again for minutes.  The movie also contains one of Hitchcock’s most well known shots, a long crane shot from the second floor of the house, moving inexorably down to a close-up of Bergman’s hand, behind her back, holding the key.

Written by Hollywood’s legendary screen writer, Ben Hecht, Notorious is a masterpiece that must be included among the very best of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and it should be seen by everyone!

To Catch A Thief

To Catch a Thief 01This is Alfred Hitchcock’s most visually beautiful movie.  Filmed on the French Riviera, the gorgeous hills, dotted with old mansions overlooking the Mediterranean Sea vie with the stark beauty of Grace Kelly and chiseled features of Cary Grant to provide enough eye candy to last a lifetime.  The following review contains plot spoilers.

The story is simply an excuse for the beauty.  American ex-patriot John Robie (Cary Grant) is a former jewel thief who was known as “the Cat” before World War II.  He paid his dues by fighting in the French Resistance, killing over 70 Nazis proving his loyalty to France.  After the war, he put aside his thieving ways and lives respectably and very well, thank you, in a villa on a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean.  This idyllic life is disturbed when a copycat burglar begins stealing the most expensive jewels on the Riviera.  When the Police come calling, thinking he has renewed his life of crime, he evades them in a breathtaking car chase through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  Turning his car over to a woman on the street, he hops a bus and sits next to Alfred Hitchcock.

He goes to see his old friend from the Resistance, Monsieur Bertani (Charles Vanel), who runs a restaurant that is manned by head waiter Foussard (Jean Martinelli) and more of their old Resistance buddies, who are all suspicious that the Police are right about Robie.  Bertani helps him escape with the aid of Foussard’s daughter, teenager Danielle (Brigitte Auber) who has a crush on him.  She takes him across the water to the Hotel Carlton, where beautiful American tourist Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) sees him.  He makes contact with a British insurance company representative, H. H. Hughson (John Williams), and pleads his case, that he is innocent and only wants to catch the thief to clear his name.  Caught by the Police, Robie is released due a lack of evidence and convinces Hughson to give him the names of his clients who have the most expensive jewels waiting to be stolen.  Abashed at having already had to pay out huge sums, Hughson agrees, also sharing the list with the Police to hedge his bets.

To Catch a Thief 02He begins by meeting rich American tourist Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), mother of Frances, and posing as a rich Oregon timber man.  After a stimulating evening, he escorts the two ladies back to their rooms, but before he can depart, Frances gives him a passionate kiss and arranges to meet him the next day.  While swimming, he runs into Danielle and Frances becomes jealous.  She and Robie take a drive to look at villas and are followed by the Police.  When he asks her to drive a little faster, she speeds up considerably, taking a kind of devilish delight in tempting fate.  They safely evade the Police and find a nice spot overlooking the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean and she tells him that she’s figured out that he’s actually John Robie.  He denies it, but after lunch the end up kissing again.  She tells him to meet her in her room to watch the fireworks or she will reveal who he really is.

That night, she seduces him again, proposing that they go into business together as burglars.  He continues the façade of being a tourist, but when she goes to sleep, he keeps watch in her bedroom.  During the night, however, the burglar robs Jessie of all her expensive jewels and finally Robie reveals himself to them.  Frances calls the Police on him and he departs over the rooftops as they arrive to search for him.

Hiding out, he stakes out what he thinks is the next target, alerting Hughson and putting the Police on notice.  As he waits in the dark, he is attacked by a man dressed in black.  Struggling, he throws the man over the cliff.  The Police find the body of Foussard in the Sea and announce that he was the burglar, clearing Robie of charges.

At her father’s funeral, Danielle becomes distraught and calls Robie a murder.  Chagrined, Frances again hooks up with Robie and he tells her of his plans to capture the real burglar by attending a fancy costume ball.  The Police follow and also stake out the ball, which Bertani is catering, with Danielle’s help.  After changing disguises with Hughson, Robie waits on the roof for the burglar to show up, but when he does, it turns out to be Danielle.

To Catch a Thief 03On Robie’s hillside villa, Frances kisses Robie again, remarking that her mother is going to love the house.

From beginning to end, the cinematography is stunning, so much so that the film won Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s longtime associate an Academy Award.  Although nominated for her incredible costuming, especially of Grace Kelly, Edith Head did not win.

This film has a different feel than most of Hitchcock’s work.  Although it contains a lot of humor, the film is not a comedy.  There is certainly some mystery as to who the real burglar is, but the film lacks the tension and suspense that mark most of Hitchcock’s movies.  In truth, this is a feel-good romance, concentrating, as it does, so intensely on beauty.  This was the last film he made with Grace Kelly before she married Prince Ranier of Monaco and gave up acting and it is appropriate that she shows so well.  Stunning in an array of dazzling Edith Head costumes, the three gowns she wears are all breathtaking.

It moves at a really good clip, coming in at under two hours, and you never notice the time passing because there is always so much beauty for your eye.  It is a fun movie, something you can’t really say about too many Hitchcock films and it transports you to a time and place full of such charm that it can honestly be said to elevate one beyond the every day.

A stunning film!  I highly recommend this movie for all audiences.

Waste Land

Waste Land 01One man’s trash another man’s art?  One man’s human scum another man’s hero?

Brazilian artist Vik Muniz works with “natural materials” such as sugar and garbage.  He has been so successful that he has relocated his studio to New York, but in 2005, he decides it is time to give something back to the country where he grew up poor.  He picks as his subject the largest landfill in the world, Jardim Gramacho, an island just outside Rio de Janeiro, where hundreds of humans comb through the newly arrived trash.

At first, his main concern is for his own welfare.  Would it be safe to work there?

When he arrives at Jardim Gramacho, he is quite surprised that the pickers.turn out to be the perfect subjects for his art.  Far from being abject poor, struggling to live off of the garbage, they are honest workers collecting plastic and metal to recycle and earning $20 to $25 a day for their labor.  Most of them found their way there through unemployment.  Although it took a “while to get used to the smell,” most of them don’t even notice after a while and Muniz goes through the same process.

In fact, their occupation is not only honest, it provides decent livings for most of them in this impoverished land, and it contributes environmentally as well.  Followed by documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker, Vik spends a great deal of time interviewing and getting to know the catadores, choosing seven men and women to work with specifically as his subjects, including a man named Tiao who has organized the workers into an association.  As representative of the catadores, he lobbies the government to make sure that they are provided for and that laws enacted for the improvement of their neighborhoods are carried out.  A friend of his picks up books from the dump and they are collecting them to form a community library.

Waste Land 02Posing Tiao as Jean Paul Marat, in an abandoned bathtub found at the dump, Muniz shoots photographs, then he systematically goes through the catadores that he has selected and puts them in famous poses.  Hiring them away from the dump, he brings them a warehouse where their photos are projected from a height onto the floor.  The workers then select garbage and use it to create the picture over the projection.  Muniz then takes photographs of the picture made of garbage.

Flying Tiao to Berlin, he watches as the photograph is sold at auction for an astounding price and all of the money goes back to the association to help the catadores to expand their center, buy computers and begin teaching adults and children how to build a better life for themselves.  Sale of the art raises over $250,000 for the catadores.

The experience is transformative for all of the workers as they try to make better lives for themselves and their children.  The association expands into a major recycling player in Brazil.

Walker does a masterful job of assembling this film, creating a work that is in itself transformative.  What started out as a film about a socially conscious artist turns out to be about a people who learn, grow and make better lives for themselves.

This is a truly powerful film that accumulates emotional punch as it develops until by the end, the viewer is pulled deeply into the lives of the catadores.  Sometimes all it takes is one person who cares deeply about something to make the world a better place and in this regard both Vik Muniz and Lucy Walker elevate the world around them, using as their tools human beings, cast-offs from society, and their art.

To enjoy more, please visit Artsy’s Vik Muniz page: https://www.artsy.net/artist/vik-muniz.

Friends with Kids

Friends with KidsThis 2011 movie written, produced and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt is about a group of shallow, sex-obsessed Manhattan Yuppies who start having children.  I’m going to discuss the full plot in some detail, so if you don’t want the ending spoiled, you probably shouldn’t read this review.  On the other hand, the story is quite predictable and if you haven’t figured out the entire plot in the first five minutes, then all cylinders aren’t firing anyway.

Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt), are both well-paid professionals in their mid-30s.  Best friends for many years, they live in the same building in Manhattan and have long telephone conversations usually involving a choice between grisly ways to die.  Julie asks Ben if he’d rather die a long, painful death by cancer or to see a loved one die the same way.  Ben chooses to watch the loved one die because he would still be alive.

They gather regularly with married friends Alex (Chris O’Dowd) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), who are obsessed with having sex, and Ben (Jon Hamm) and Leslie (Maya Rudolph).  Not interested in each other Jason and Julie continually seek their own romantic relationships, the success measured in sexual happiness.  Their friends have children, but they continue to seek permanent mates themselves until one evening they decide to have a child of their own.  Seeing the misery that their friends have experienced, they decide that they can raise a child and still search for their own soul-mates.

While Ben and Leslie manage to make their marriage work, Alex and Missy’s relationship falls apart, further evidence that they’ve made the right decision.  As time passes, Jason becomes involved with a dancer, Mary Jane (Megan Fox), while Julie finds Mr. Right in the form of Kurt (Edward Burns).  When Alex gets drunk at a New Years skiing getaway for the eight of them, he comes down hard on Jason and Julie for not thinking through the effect their decision will have on their child.  Jason strongly defends the decision, declaring how much they love each other and how much they love their little boy.

Taking this to heart, Julie realizes that she really does love Jason more than Kurt.  When they get together to celebrate her birthday, she tells him how she feels, but Jason recoils, explaining that he loves her as a friend and is already in a deep relationship with Mary Jane.  Julie decides to move to Brooklyn to get away from him.  Both of their relationships end and Jason then realizes that he actually loves Julie, too.  It ends with him telling her that he’s changed his mind: he’d rather die himself than to watch her die of cancer.  She is reluctant at first to accept this change of heart, but when he promises great sex, she changes her mind.

There are moments in this movie that ring true and come close to being genuinely touching, but the predictability of the plot makes it very hard to become attached to story.  The characters are genuinely shallow.  Self-obsessed relationship-junkies who have probably never had an original thought in their lives, their elevation of sex to the be-all and end-all of human love comes across as pathetic and self-serving.

Maybe this is the present or the future of American ideals, but I sure hope not.  One can admire Westfeldt for her hard work in doing the project, but I really wish she had taken the time to put some thought into it.  I can’t really recommend this movie to anyone.

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

Fargo

Fargo Paul BunyanAlfred Hitchcock would have liked this 1996 Joel Coen and Ethan Coen quirky thriller that contains so much comedy it transcends genres.  It borrows a number of techniques from the master of thriller movies, including a clever McGuffin, a villain with empathy, horrific incidents that are hilarious, and a tremendous environmental atmosphere.

The following review contains plot spoilers!

Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is caught in a deep financial bind during the winter of 1987 and hatches a scheme to hire two thugs, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) so that her wealthy father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) will pay enough money to pay off the kidnappers and leave him high and dry financially.  At the same time, he has been working on a real estate deal that would leave him wealthy enough to quit the car business altogether.  He has been pitching this scheme to his father-in-law hoping that the man will loan him $750,000 to complete the deal.

Fargo William MacyHe drives to Fargo to give the prospective kidnappers a 1987 Oldsmobile Ciera to cement the deal, passing through the hamlet of Brainerd, Minnesota, home of Paul Bunyan.  Returning to Minneapolis, Jerry is shocked to find that Wade is actually interested in the real estate deal, so he hastily tries to contact the kidnappers to cancel the deal, but they are already on the road to the Twin Cities.  In a meeting with Wade and his financial officer, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), Jerry finds that they only want to pay him a finder’s fee and will not loan him the $750,000.  Although Jean puts of nominal resistance, Carl and Gaear wrap her up in a shower curtain (there are several reverential Psycho moments) and head back to Fargo.  When Jerry finds Jean missing, he tells Wade that the kidnappers want one million dollars for her return, thinking he can get the money for the real estate deal, but that the kidnappers will only deal with him.

Fargo Steve BuscemiOutside Brainerd, Carl and Gaear get stopped by a state patrolman because Carl has forgotten to put tags on the Ciera.  While he attempts to smooth things over with the officer, Jean moans under the shower curtain in the back seat and the trooper asks them to exit the vehicle.  On impulse, Gaear grabs the officer and shoots him in the head.  He tells Carl to move the body off the highway and while Carl is trying to drag the dead man out of the way, a car happens by and two people witness it.  Gaear puts the Ciera in gear, chases down the witnesses and shoots both of them after their car has flipped into a field.

Fargo Frances McDormandBrainerd Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is awakened in the early morning hours by her deputies who need her at the scene of the triple homicide.  Her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), faithfully fixes his seven-month pregnant wife breakfast, jumps her patrol car, and sends her off.  Marge quickly figures out exactly what happens and launches an investigation that leads her to the Blue Ox Motel where the two men stayed on their way to Minneapolis.  She interviews the two girls who bedded the men and follows up on several phone calls made to Jerry’s mechanic, Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) who had set the deal up for Jerry.  Following up this lead, she goes to Minneapolis only to find that Shep has disappeared.  She interviews an extremely nervous Jerry, ultimately growing suspicious of him.

Jerry’s plans are derailed when Wade takes the money and heads for a rooftop parking lot to meet Carl.  Jerry follows, but Carl gets annoyed by Wade and shoots him.  Wade gets in one shot that goes through Carl’s jaw.  Further annoyed, Carl empties his gun into Wade’s body and runs with the money, shooting the parking lot attendant on the way out.  Stopping on a lonely highway, he looks into the bag and discovers a million dollars.  He takes out enough to account for the original small ransom that Jerry had told him about and buries the bag in the snow along a fence, marking the spot with his ice scraper.

Thinking that Jerry may have lied to her, Marge goes back to the dealership, but Jerry storms out and disappears, so she puts him on the radar for the state police.  When Carl returns to their Moose Lake hideout, he finds that Gaear has killed Jean.  He gives the man his half of the money, but Gaear is upset that they were also supposed to divide the Ciera.  Carl yells at him, but on his way out, Gaear kills him, too.  A tip leads Marge to Moose Lake where she discovers Gaear feeding Carl’s body into a wood chipper.  She confronts him and when he tries to run, she wounds him and then arrests him.  On the way in, she adds up the deaths and remarks that the money wasn’t worth it.  Jerry is found at a motel and arrested.

Right from the very beginning of the movie, the atmosphere is stark and it sets up the cold northern winter that is the blanketing background of the movie.  A wash of white fills the camera and only fleetingly do we see Jerry’s car moving through the hazy bleak whiteness.  The cinematography is extraordinary and the use of color is truly dazzling.

The script and the editing are extremely tight, leading to a film that runs only one hour and thirty-eight minutes, yet tells a completely compelling story.  The dialogue is crisp and taut, full of the deep northern dialect that lends a comedic feel from the first time Jerry opens his mouth.  Each scene is so succinct and well written that the story moves inexorably to its conclusion.  There is only one plot element that slows it down: a subplot with an old acquaintance of Marge that makes her think Jerry might be lying.  It takes up more space than it probably warrants, but it is the only detraction from an intricate, well balanced script.

The acting is amazing, beginning with Frances McDormand and William H. Macy.  Although McDormand doesn’t even make an appearance until nearly 30 minutes into the movie, her presence takes it over.  Marge is a pretty simple character and she keeps everything in perspective, casually adding up the elements of the crime while dealing with her pregnancy.  Her Minnesota dialect is pitch perfect and it keeps the comedy always working for the good of the film.  Macy, a relatively unknown character actor before Fargo, is terrific as Jerry, a character that we instinctively don’t like, yet we feel his terror as the situation gets further and further out of hand.  It is a brilliant performance.

All of the supporting actors are great, from Buscemi and Stormare as the kidnappers to Lynch as Marge’s supportive wildlife artist husband, Norm.  Presnell is truly funny as Jean’s father.  Everyone works together to create a wonderful ensemble of acting that all goes back to support the script.

Fargo was amply rewarded with seven Academy Award nominations, with Oscars for Frances McDormand for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay for the Coen brothers.  It was also up for Best Picture (Ethan Coen), Director (Joel Coen), Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), and Best Editing (Roderick Jaynes).

It remains the best of a deep and impressive body of work by the Coen brothers.  In spite of the violence, it is a film that can be enjoyed over and over.  It is a classic of American cinema that should have a place in every serious film buff’s collection.  The DVD special edition contains a “making of” featurette, as well as a Charlie Rose interview with the Coens and Frances McDormand.

As I said at the beginning, Hitchcock would have loved this one!

Jane Eyre 1996

Jane Eyre 1996Adapting a classic novel to the big screen is always a dicey proposition.  The screen writer and director have a limited amount of time, yet there is so much in a classic novel that readers depend on for a satisfying experience.  Indeed, there is so much that is germane to the internal logic of a novel of depth that the story itself is resistant to adaptation within a two hour format.  That was proven conclusively with the BBC film Pride and Prejudice, presented as a television mini-series five hours long.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre presents particular problems because each of the three distinct elements of the story warrants telling, yet the third section is difficult to fit into a film.  Adapted for the screen by Hugh Whitemore and legendary director Franco Zeffirelli, this 1996 script, like others before it, concentrates on Jane’s childhood and her relationship with the master of Thornfield Hall, but compresses the third part of the book into a few hasty minutes.

For a full synopsis of the story, I refer readers to my review of the novel Jane Eyre.  In short, it is the story of a girl, Jane Eyre (Anna Paquin), in the middle years of 19th Century in England, orphaned and mistreated by her aunt, then sent to an impoverished school for girls.  She grows up to become a teacher (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and is employed at Thornfield Hall by the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Joan Plowright) as governess for a little French, ward of the master of the hall, Mr. Edward Rochester (William Hurt).  She falls in love with him, but he is married to a madwoman, so Jane runs away and is taken in by a clergyman, St. John (Samuel West) and his sisters.  The clergyman employs her as a school teacher, but asks her to become his wife and travel with him as a missionary.  She refuses and instead goes back to Thornfield Hall, only to find that it has been destroyed in a fire.  Discovering that Rochester’s mad wife died in the blaze, she reunites with the man she loves.

Director Franco Zeffirelli is a master at camera composition, use of landscape, and color and this film certainly reflects that.  It is beautiful in every respect and can be enjoyed simply for that aspect.  Both Anna Paquin and Charlotte Gainsbourg are wonderful as Jane Eyre at ten and seventeen.  They look so much alike that they are certainly believable as the same person.  That Gainsbourg is made to look plain is a step above most adaptations of the novel and it makes her extra believable in the role.  She also infuses the character with the simplicity and independence that make Jane Eyre such a memorable character.  The creation of Jane Eyre in this film is really terrific!  William Hurt is fine as Rochester, though he is plainly a little too good looking for the part.  There are also a few times when I didn’t believe him as an Englishman, although there is nothing glaring about the performance.  It is solid, but not overly impressive.  The supporting cast is really terrific, especially Joan Plowright as Mrs. Fairfax, Leanne Rowe as Helen Burns, John Wood as Mr. Brocklehurst, Fiona Shaw as Mrs. Reed, Geraldine Chaplin as Miss Scatcherd, Amanda Root as Miss Temple, Billie Whitelaw as Grace Poole, and Maria Schneider as Rochester’s mad wife Bertha.  Elle McPherson, the model, also makes a cameo as Blanche Ingram, the society woman set on marrying Rochester for his money.

Zeffirelli spends adequate time on Jane’s childhood, especially in framing the friendship between her and Helen Burns.  The middle section that concentrates on the evolving relationship between Jane and Rochester is extremely well done.  The affection between them is difficult to achieve, partly because they are such different people, but Gainsbourg and Hurt work very well together and Zeffirelli helps the viewers to see it happening without using words.  It is masterfully done.

Whitemore and Zeffirelli take a big chance, however, by introducing the characters of St. John and his sister Mary as go-betweens when Jane’s aunt Mrs. Reed becomes ill before dying.  Although it tightens up the plot in a creative way, it also puts in place the means of Jane ending up with them later on and leads the screenwriters to completely eliminate what might be the best scene in the entire work: Jane’s wandering the moors alone after she leaves Rochester.  In the novel and in other screen adaptations the scene is extremely powerful.  Jane, without caring for her own life, wanders aimlessly, sleeps in a ditch and is at death’s doorstep when she stumbles onto St. John’s home.  By cutting out that scene, the screen writers have her go directly to St. John based on his prior association with her and her illness is skirted over very quickly.  Likewise, Jane’s enormous confusion over St. John’s proposal is also missing.  In the novel, her thoughts on the proposal provide the entire basis for her return to seek out Rochester and that inner logic hurts the entire last part of the movie.

On the other hand, Zeffirelli brings the film in at slightly under two hours.  It is a beautiful movie, with many positive aspects to it, not the least of which is the most believable Jane I’ve yet seen.  Paquin and Gainsbourg are absolutely marvelous and that means a lot in a story that absolutely depends on the believability of the title character.  I find it a little annoying that William Hurt has top billing because his character is truly ancillary to Jane.

It is a good film and should be seen by all fans of Jane Eyre.


Jane EyreRead my review of the novel Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte!

This 1847 classic novel both delights and confounds a modern reader.

Told mostly in first person past (with brief lapses into first person present) by the heroine, Jane Eyre, the book was originally subtitled An Autobiography.  It begins with Jane as a young girl of ten years as an orphan living with her Aunt Reed at Gateshead Hall.


Samantha Morton2_Jane EyreRead my review of the 1997 ITV movie of Jane Eyre.

This film adaptation of the classic novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë was originally aired on Great Britain’s ITV in March of 1997 runs approximately one hour and 45 minutes.  Obviously, a great deal had to be cut from the story in order to fit it into that kind of time parameter, but Kay Mellor’s script concentrates rightly on the romance between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester and the Gothic suspense of Thornfield.


Jane Eyre 2011Read my review of the 2011 Cary Fukunaga movie of Jane Eyre.

This adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre was produced in 2011.  Directed by Cary Fukunaga from a script by Moira Buffini, this is clearly the best of the recent movie versions of the novel.  Ms. Buffini’s script is faithful to the novel, yet innovative in the way it tells the story, bringing a passion lacking in the other attempts.

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!