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. 15, 2014

                             

Well, that was a week. Do you need a hug? I need a hug.

I don’t need to tell you about the losses the film world suffered this week. Robin Williams was a performer we may never see the like of again: equally at home whether the part called for gentle understatement or manic, motor-mouthed energy. Later on in his career, movie marketers were fond of taking the “you’ve never seen Robin Williams like THIS before!” angle to advertise his darker, chilling performances in “One Hour Photo,” “Insomnia,” or “World’s Greatest Dad,” but the truth was you could have said that for any of his films, from the very beginning. He was trained at Juilliard and he was never interested in staying in that “Mork and Mindy” box. I will probably always think of him as funny first, because I belong to that generation for whom his performances in “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Aladdin” DEFINED comedy; but I hope to never forget that he was so much more.

The passing of Lauren Bacall may be less painfully tragic, but it’s still no overstatement to say that a piece of film history is gone now. Even if it has been years since Bacall had much of an impact on screen (Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville” was probably her last appearance of note), she kept working throughout those many decades, because how could you ever stop making movies when you had a presence like that? When you get right down to it there is a very small percentage of actors that are truly indelible, and Bacall was one of them.

So this week we’re expanding our rundown slightly, so that we can pay fair tribute to both these beloved performers. RIP, Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall. We loved you and we miss you already.

– Ethan

“To Have and Have Not” (1944)

Cast: Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Walter Brennan, Hoagy Carmichael, Sheldon Leonard, Dolores Moran

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

When Lauren Bacall made her Hollywood debut in “To Have and Have Not,” she couldn’t have known that it would become the most important film of her career. It’s where she and Humphrey Bogart met and fell in love, and it’s the movie that belongs to that famous whistling line (you know how, don’t you?). Adapted from an Ernest Hemingway novel, the movie in many ways reprises “Casablanca” (made two years earlier): it’s set in an exotic French colonial location during the Second World War and stars Bogart as our world-weary hero. Then enters Lauren Bacall, playing Marie (“Slim”), a thief and femme fatale, and it becomes very different movie. In an era when women were there to be saved by men, Bacall stood apart. Ingrid Bergman may have let Bogie put her on that plane, but Bacall, only 19 at the time, held her own against her future husband and presented a woman equal to any man—tough, smart, and in control. Bacall complained later in life that she was never judged without Bogart, and while the legend of their romance remains too great to overlook, it’s not hard to see why she was annoyed. Slim certainly would have been.

– Elaine

“Written on the Wind” (1956)

Cast: Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, Robert Keith

Available on disc from Netflix

In many ways, Bacall was built for melodrama – she was just too powerful, too fiery a screen presence to play it cool. That probably made it inevitable that she should work with Douglas Sirk, the king of over-the-top Hollywood weepies, but almost perverse that she should take on the role of Lucy Moore, the relatively non-flashy part of the company secretary who gets caught up in the oil-rich Hadley family’s maelstrom of self-destruction. But even in his more subtle roles, Sirk didn’t need subtlety – he needed actors whose very looks could stand up against his over-saturated, over-stuffed visuals. Every frame of a Sirk film is the cover of a romance novel, every scene an exaggerated and subversive spin on Hollywood artifice – and who better to lead such a wild jumble than Bacall, the magazine-cover model girl who came up through the studio system.

– Ethan

“Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993)

Cast: Robin Williams, Sally Field, Pierce Brosnan, Matthew Lawrence, Lisa Jakub, Harvey Fierstein, Polly Holliday, Mara Wilson, Robert Prosky

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

While “Dead Poets Society” holds a special place in my heart, that film’s appeal lies not only in Robin Williams’ performance, but in the ensemble, the power of poetry, and the promise of youth. “Mrs. Doubtfire,” however, belongs entirely to Robin Williams. In one of his most fondly remembered roles, he doubles as Daniel Hillard, a talented voice actor but hapless father, and as Mrs. Iphigenia Doubtfire, a Scottish super nanny who is really Hillard in disguise. Capitalizing on his skill set, Hillard devises Mrs. Doubtfire as a ruse to spend time with his children and win back his wife after she files for divorce. It’s the perfect character for Williams’ brilliant voice acting, witty improvisation, and joyous energy. (In fact, Williams improvised so much during filming that there were PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 cuts of the movie.) If nothing else will be remembered, the makeover scene, during which Mrs. Doubtfire is born, remains a tour de force in acting. Williams goes through countless characters, complete with different faces, hairstyles, voices, and accents in the space of minutes. From Barbara Streisand to a terrifying Spanish woman to the matchmaker in “Yentl,” Williams’ shape-shifting is a performance for the ages.

– Elaine

“The Birdcage” (1996)

Cast: Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Dan Futterman, Calista Flockhart, Hank Azaria, Christine Baranski

Available streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime, for rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes

I’ll try and refrain from the many, many puns that have been made over the years about how the brilliance of Robin Williams’ performance in “The Birdcage” is his willingness to “play it straight” to Nathan Lane (dammit, I still did it). It’s an oversimplification of what he’s doing here, in any case. It’s not like Williams isn’t funny, or fast, or flamboyant in this movie – he’s all of those things, but in flashes, wrapped up in moments of heartbreaking tenderness, disappointment and resiliency. In other words, he feels like a very real person, in the middle of what is often a zany, cartoonish take on the clash between the free-wheeling denizens of Miami and Gene Hackman’s ultra-right-wing conservative congressman. There’s a little of everything in Williams’ performance: the rapid-fire improv, the perfect one-liner timing, the quiet sadness, the bent-but-not-broken spirit. Oh, and the movie is just flat-out hilarious in general, too.

Ethan