For Your Consideration: Nov. 21, 2014

Celebrated director Mike Nichols died on Wednesday in Manhattan at the age of 83. Nichols, known for his wit, comedic timing, and ability to bring out the best in actors, enjoyed a storied career that spanned the stage, screen, and radio. He is one of only a handful of people ever to win an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy, and a Grammy, and his work ranged from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to the Monty Python musical “Spamalot.” The list of luminaries who have worked with Nichols over the decades is long: He discovered Whoopi Goldberg and Dustin Hoffman, made his cinematic directorial debut overseeing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and in 2012, directed Andrew Garfield and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the award-winning revival “Death of a Salesman.”

But of all the stars Nichols worked with, the one who paid perhaps the best tribute to him was Elaine May, the other half of the comedy team that first made Nichols famous: “So he’s witty, he’s brilliant, he’s articulate, he’s on time, he’s prepared and he writes. But is he perfect? He knows you can’t really be liked or loved if you’re perfect. You have to have just enough flaws. And he does. Just the right, perfect flaws to be absolutely endearing.”

– Elaine

“The Graduate” (1967)

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Elizabeth Wilson, Buck Henry

Available streaming on Netflix, to rent or purchase from Vudu, Amazon Instant, iTunes

The obvious choice, perhaps, but “The Graduate” is an unimpeachable piece of film canon for a reason. There aren’t many films that remain so persistently entertaining and so dramatically restless – every time I watch it I find some new delight in Hoffman and Bancroft’s masterful performances, and some new existential dread behind the laughs. This is what happens when the American Dream turns into American Ennui. I can’t even think of much else to say except that it’s essential cinema, and if you haven’t seen it yet, why are you still here?

Ethan

“Working Girl” (1988)

Cast: Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Cusack, Alec Baldwin, Philip Bosco, Nora Dunn, Oliver Platt, Kevin Spacey

Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and Vudu; on disc from Netflix

The paradox of Mike Nichols was the way his career was defined by undefinability – he bounded between projects from frivolous (“The Birdcage”) to profound (HBO’s mini-series of “Angels in America”), never with any particular consistency. He was capable of both bombing or firing on all cylinders, and there was no particular pattern in genre or theme to predict when he might hit which. Small matter – when it worked, it worked, and “Working Girl”…err….succeeded. Anchored by a charming cast (remember when Harrison Ford seemed to enjoy being in movies?), and a zippy, if blunt, script, Nichols’ rom-com benefits from his generally invisible, clockwork craftsmanship. And I mean really, anyone who recognized that Sigourney Weaver and Joan Cusack needed to be in the same movie deserves some sort of recognition.

– Ethan

“Closer” (2004)

Cast: Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, Jude Law

Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant, iTunes and Vudu, on disc from Netflix

Film adaptations of plays are often accused of being too “talky” – sort of a ridiculous in a world where we all fawn over Tarantino – but “Closer” is a great example of how being cinematic doesn’t exclude being eloquent. If there’s anything consistent about Nichols’ directing career, it was that he gravitated toward characters that were articulate, whether they were cracking jokes, breaking down, or, in the case of this film, just being kind of generally desperate and lonely. Between his aesthetically appealing quartet of actors and some of the most beautiful, woozy cinematography (photographed by Stephen Goldblatt) of his career, “Closer” is certainly attractive as well; as engaging a film to look at as it is to listen to, even when its messy web of romance and deceit gets most ugly.

– Ethan

For Your Consideration: Aug. 22, 2014

Almost ten years after Robert Rodriguez first took us into the hyper-stylized ultra-violent world of Frank Miller’s “Sin City,” the long-gestating sequel has finally appeared. The comic book/graphic novel writer has seen his work mainstreamed through the popularity of “300,” the influence of The Dark Knight Returns on Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and, um, the super-hyped fiasco that was his solo directorial debut (“The Spirit”). But for some reason the noir-tinged psychopaths of Basin City still seem to hold a special fascination; though perhaps that’s not so surprising, considering the very real attraction of the original Sin City. Avarice, danger, sex, glitz: you can get it all in Las Vegas (at least in the movies). This week we’re recommending three films from the world’s center for adult entertainment.

– Ethan

“Leaving Las Vegas” (1995)

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands, Richard Lewis, Steven Weber

Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Mike Figgis’ acclaimed indie was not responsible for the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, nor the depressed alcoholic; but it’s hard to see these stock roles in any modern film and not see the echoes of Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue. Though it embraces the bleak, self-destructive side of Vegas’ flurry of temptation and obsession, “Leaving Las Vegas” still finds some positive energy amidst the desperation and disappointment. It’s not that either character is beyond redemption, which makes it all the more strangely, tragically pitiful that Cage’s struggling screenwriter obstinately chooses to continue down his path toward implosion; did he go to Vegas to drink himself to death, or did he drink himself to death because he was in Vegas?

– Ethan

“The Cooler” (2003)

Cast: William H. Macy, Maria Bello, Alec Baldwin, Shawn Hatosy, Ron Livingston, Paul Sorvino, Estella Warren

Available to purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, to rent on disc from Netflix

A twisty neo-noir with a few (slightly gimmicky) flashes of Scorsese-in-“Casino”/dice-fetishist style, “The Cooler” stands out not so much for its story – unlucky Bernie Lootz’s transition from professional jinx to can’t-miss-lover isn’t exactly shocking – but for the exceptional cast, making the most of a traditional setup. Baldwin got the Oscar nod, and deservedly so, for his rough, jaded Vegas old-timer resisting the city’s efforts to scrub away its dirty history; but William H. Macy plays the sad sack titular role with a kind of pathetic, schlubby dignity (Paul Giamatti would be proud), and Maria Bello makes for a pretty believable good luck charm.

– Ethan

“Fright Night” (2011)

Cast: Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Toni Collette, Dave Franco

Available to rent or purchase on Amazon Instant or iTunes, on disc from Netflix; you can also check out the original streaming on Netflix or Hulu

Forget Transylvania; Las Vegas is the place to be if you’re one of the undead. Everyone stays up all night, there’s plenty of new blood coming into town, and no one stays in town long enough to figure out what you’re up to. That’s what brings Jerry the Vampire (Colin Farrell) to town, moving in next door to high school student Charley (Anton Yelchin) in this remake of a 1985 cult classic. The very fact that our vampire is named Jerry should tell you what kind of movie this is, exuding that special charm of movies aware of their own campiness. Farrell is surprisingly convincing as Jerry, alternately sexy and scary, charming and menacing. To top it all off, David Tennant makes a delightful appearance as Peter Vincent, a sniveling, leather-clad Van Helsing who headlines a Vegas show but is too afraid to actually hunt vampires. Next time you’re packing for Vegas, better bring some garlic.

– Elaine

Review: Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett dominates a strong ensemble in Woody Allen’s sterling “Blue Jasmine,” the famed writer/director’s best effort in years.

Cool, severe, imposing: Cate Blanchett never so much inhabits the screen as she does command it. She belongs to a certain class of thespian (Meryl Streep, Katherine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh) that I would call less an actress than a presence – they’re never entirely convincing as anyone but themselves, but that’s often sort of the point. Seeing a film about Elizabeth I and seeing a film with Blanchett as Elizabeth I aren’t quite the same thing.

With “Blue Jasmine,” her first lead role in several years, Blanchett has opted to take on an equally iconic role, although this one is not historical but archetypical. After she played Blanche DuBois in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s acclaimed 2009 stage revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” I suppose it was inevitable that Blanchett would bring her characterization to the art-house in one way or another. The surprise of “Blue Jasmine,” a sharp-witted tragedy of a fallen socialite, is not that Blanchett would star (and shine) in it, but that Modern Woody Allen would make it.

See, back in the day Classic Woody Allen made movies that were not only funny and charming but carried an edge. Films like “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Husbands and Wives,” “Alice,” “September;” there is a humanism in these works that made room for tragedy and emotional turmoil as well as Allen’s observational humor. Modern Woody (defined roughly as post-“Sweet and Lowdown”) hasn’t seemed as interested in crises of faith or the perils of modern romance – “Match Point” is about the only film from the past ten years that nods in that direction, and it’s more something that belongs in a cabinet of curiosities than among the crown jewels – leading to a thematic stagnation that’s led to the auteur’s films looking increasingly backwards. “Midnight in Paris” was the apex of this trend, both in terms of literal time travel and, thankfully, actually creatively addressing Allen’s increasing nostalgia and floundering attempts to stay relevant in a contemporary, 21st-century setting. But last year’s slight and forgettable “To Rome With Love” seemed to put the writer/director back at square one.

Instead, it seems he was just saving his energy and ire for “Blue Jasmine,” Allen’s most well-honed, germane work in at least a decade. This is not the kind of self-indulgent, obligatory sort of film that emerges out of just pumping out a film per year – it has something legitimate to say about ambition and wealth in the Madoff era, channeled through the biting personal drama of Tennessee Williams. If that sounds overly dour, it’s because you’re forgetting that we’re still dealing with Woody Allen, and there is still plenty of fun to be had. It’s just that there’s more bite behind the laughter than usual.

The film’s delicate balance between comedy and tragedy is well defined in its protagonist, one of Woody’s most fully-fleshed out creations. Jasmine is a great jumble of humanity: entitled, haughty, critical and delusional, but also a sympathetic, beleaguered nervous wreck. When she shows up at her sister’s apartment in San Francisco, destitute and lost after the discovery of her husband’s white-collar crimes, she seems nothing but a vapid socialite, incapable of taking care of herself. She fills the air with a constant barrage of inane conversation and embellished memories of parties and people that her sister never has been nor ever will be privy to, motoring along as if a moment of self-reflection would kill her.

But it might do. Though she seems flighty and impractical, Jasmine actually pursues her dreams of rising back up the social stratosphere with remarkable determination, a sign that she has never been the pushover that everyone assumes her to be. When it comes to her life before her husband’s scandal or after it, Jasmine is purposeful and resolute – but there’s a gray patch in the middle, somewhere around her husband’s arrest and the nervous breakdown that followed, that eats away at Jasmine. Allen bounces back and forth in time, flashing back to Jasmine’s Upper East Side life with Hal, dancing around the moment everything fell apart just as Jasmine does. To her great frustration (and the detriment of her mental health), it’s all anyone else can focus on.

For even though they seem to find her judgmental and nosy, everyone around Jasmine sure seems content to pay her back in kind. Her sister (the perpetually haggard Sally Hawkins) clearly harbors resentment over the siblings’ divergent paths; her sister’s short-tempered boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale, in best Stanley Kowalski form) considers Jasmine a threat to his family plans; and her sister’s ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay), who lost his life’s savings in Hal’s Ponzi scheme, accuses Jasmine of being an ignorant enabler. Among all these shattered perceptions, who Jasmine might actually be is lost, even to herself.

This is perhaps the first film in the Modern Woody era that feels like it was actually cast according to character, rather than just according to the sort of people who might like to be in a Woody Allen movie this month (plus Scarlett Johannson). Alec Baldwin is perfect as Hal, all shiny exterior and no soul, while Hawkins, Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard and even Dice Clay are totally appropriate in their respective roles. The real windfall though is Blanchett, and we can only hope that Allen is looking for a new blonde muse. Her mannered style dovetails with Jasmine’s false airs, making it all the more believable and affecting when the great dame’s carefully constructed exterior comes crashing down.

“Blue Jasmine” lacks the kind of iconic imagery of Tennessee Williams – like many of even Classic Woody’s films, this movie doesn’t ever really shoot for moments of transcendent truth or clarity, but is content to deliver at a consistent highbrow pitch. In terms of where the characters end up, the film ends not all that far from where it begins – but there’s an infinite sadness that emerges from that inertia. For someone like Jasmine, there is nowhere to go but down.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars