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. 1, 2014

It’s been about six months, which must mean it’s time for Marvel to crash the box-office party again. The powerhouse studio is taking its biggest quote unquote “risk” with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a property that was barely known in the mainstream until they cast Vin Diesel as a talking tree. But curiosity over brand loyalty and the new Hollywood business model aside, I’ve found myself more excited and eager for “Guardians” than “Captain America 2: The Released-in-Early-Spring-Because-The-Money-Was-Just-Sitting-There Soldier” or “Thor 2: Still Thor.” Why? Was it the tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign, which promises that mayyyybe this Marvel entry will have a little more self-aware silliness? Was it the actually quite savvy choice of James Gunn, cult genre favorite, as director for a massive blockbuster?

I have realized that no, this goes back deeper: to my personal love for Ethan Edwards and Wyatt Earp and Harmonica. Yes, it always comes back to Westerns, and I’m getting an unmistakable Space Western vibe from Chris Pratt’s cosmic gunslinger and his band of alien outlaws. They don’t call it “the final frontier” for nothing – the Space Western is a proud, under-appreciated tradition that “Guardians” might just help revive (“Cowboys and Aliens” certainly did us no favors). Sometimes sci-fi and Westerns go so well together you don’t even notice – so this week, to put “Guardians” in the proper context, we’re considering three films that laid the cinematic space railroad for this runaway box office train.

I know that was a labored metaphor, just shut up and move on.

– Ethan

“Aliens” (1986)

Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henrikson, Bill Paxton

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

Confused? “Aliens” is a sci-fi/action hybrid you say? Well what do you call it when a homesteader settlement on the edge of civilization is massacred by an unknown Other, leaving an outmatched troop of rescuers to navigate unfamiliar and dangerous territory? Because I call that a Western. Just replace those problematic Native American portrayals with uncontroversial, terrifying aliens, the cavalry with space marines, and John Wayne with Sigourney Weaver, and we’re set. We really shouldn’t have been so surprised when the narrative of “Avatar” boiled down to “Dances With Wolves” with blue people – it’s obvious that James Cameron has had at least one eye on the frontier since the start.

– Ethan

“Space Jam” (1996)

Cast: Bugs Bunny, Michael Jordan, Wayne Knight, Bill Murray, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Danny DeVito

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

I’ve often wondered what inspired Warner Brothers to send Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny to space together, or why NBA stars like Charles Barkley and Larry Bird agreed to it, but whatever the stroke of inspiration, it was one of genius. Almost 20 years later, “Space Jam” has become a cult classic, especially beloved of ‘90s kids and accessible to all ages and generations. The Looney Tunes find themselves besieged by a group of criminal aliens, the Nerdlucks (whose mafioso boss is delightfully voiced by Danny DeVito). To win their freedom from these outlanders, Bugs and friends challenge the short, not-so-bright aliens to a game of basketball. Unfortunately for them—and for the NBA—the Nerdlucks steal the talent (and the physique) of the game’s top stars, so that the Looney Tunes, in desperation, turn to lone hero Michael Jordan, then plying his trade in baseball. Jordan is funny and charismatic, at ease with his cartoon co-stars, while the Looney Tunes bring a star-studded cast featuring all the classic favorites. If all that’s not enough, even Bill Murray shows up. It’s a sports movie and cartoon in one (Editor’s note: with just a splash of “Magnificent Seven!”), the theme song will forever echo in your head, and a trip to outer space never looked so appealing.

– Elaine

“Serenity” (2005)

Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Summer Glau, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher

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

It’s fairly impossible to discuss this genre anymore without bringing up Joss Whedon’s ill-fated TV show “Firefly.” Thanks to its second life on Netflix, “Firefly” and its cinematic follow-up/wrap-up “Serenity” probably has the biggest Space Western-fanboy following this side of “Star Wars” – but don’t let the rabid Comic-Con-goers cloud what actually makes the series great. It’s not Summer Glau beating up everyone, nor even Whedon’s trademark quippy dialogue: it’s the delicate mash-up of genre and tone, with the outer reaches of the galaxy, like the Old West before it, portrayed in equal measure as a place of swashbuckling adventure and brutal violence, of morality tested in a world where morality might mean nothing at all.

– Ethan