TBT: The Graduate (1967)

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For the second pick of November ’15 we’re going back to what has been referred to me time and again as a classic. A coming-of-ager to end all coming-of-age films. It’s Dustin Hoffman’s second big screen appearance, one that officially opened up the doors to a promising and diverse career, one that I am ashamed to admit I have experienced precious little of. My world has been rocked today as I have learned that 1) Dustin Hoffman, and I mean this in the most complimentary of ways, has been around much longer than I had thought he had been; and 2) I hadn’t planned this at all, but this TBT is in a way commemorative. Today marks one year since the sudden and tragic passing of the much-acclaimed director of 

Today’s food for thought: The Graduate.

'The Graduate' movie poster

Worrying about the future since: December 22, 1967

[Netflix]

An idle mind is the devil’s playground, some Philippians once decreed. Given that, I had an entire sandbox and an assortment of twisty slides to go down thinking about all of the dirty things I could be doing instead of watching this incredibly annoying movie. This character (yes, that’s right, the graduate) doesn’t do anything the entire movie but complain about upper middle-class white male privilege. “Oh no, my life is going in no direction in particular. Guess I’ll go float on a raft in the middle of my pool for the rest of the summer.”

A solid basis for a Kevin Smith movie. Let’s just watch Dustin Hoffman look really good for an hour and 40 minutes in a sun-tinged pool in some swanky house in Burbank. Or wherever the location was. I do find it kind of ironic: I have drifted for much of my post-collegiate life (because I’m no good at making actual, important decisions). I’m middle-class . . . maybe not upper-middle-class but I’ve been fortunate. Where are the cameras? Oh yeah, that’s right, I think out loud, snapping back to reality.

Two things, one probably more important than the other: 1) I’m not an attractive, young movie star and 2) I’m not an attractive, young movie star who gets his bones jumped by Anne Bancroft. See? I’m telling you, this is a movie about privilege.

The Graduate is supposed to be this whole quirky, kinky romantic thing involving Hoffman’s Ben Braddock and a family friend, the lovely but pathetically insecure Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft). The film is hardly romantic and it certainly isn’t charming. Although it does tick the quirky and kinky boxes. It all starts when she asks Ben to drive her home after a welcome home party in Ben’s honor.

Things get a bit awkward as Ben suddenly finds himself alone with her in her room as she undresses. But they won’t do the dirty here — no, they end up getting a room in a hotel where apparently all manners of trysts and assignations occur. This is where we get that iconic shot of Bancroft’s crossed legs in the foreground, with a smitten Ben Braddock lingering in the background, hands in his pockets. Perhaps if Ben weren’t such an incorrigible stiff — I mean that in the least sexual way possible — this movie would be over a heck of a lot sooner, saving me and anyone else who can’t buy into whatever charm Hoffman’s supposedly laying on in his second big screen performance from another 80-some-odd minutes of flaccid comedy.

Complications arise when Ben’s parents set him up on a date with the Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), much to Mrs. Robinson’s disapproval. She hates the thought of Ben going for someone his own age. (Yeah, what a pervert.) When Ben eventually falls in love with Elaine, following a rough first date during which he attempts to distance himself from her at the behest of her mother, all bets are off that Ben’s once quiet life will continue as normal.

Early in the film a family friend encourages the young man to live a little, to enjoy himself just for awhile before he settles down. That was actually Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) who gave him that advice. Ergo, anything comical about The Graduate stems less from performances and situation as it does from our omniscient vantage point. We know everything and the poor husband knows nothing. I saw more disdain for living than pleasure in embracing life’s unpredictability. Less comedy and more pent-up sexual frustration. The Graduate is all about the latter; I’m not so sure about the former. I suppose one thing that was pretty amusing was how adamant Ben was in ensuring Mrs. Robinson he isn’t a virgin.

More mysterious than how this film has garnered such popularity is Hoffman’s awkward, wooden performance. The goal is to exude that post-graduation malaise but his delivery doesn’t seem very assured. Not to mention, being a womanizer first and a stalker second doesn’t really speak to my experience. And I doubt I’m alone. I’m also not a saint, but if The Graduate is supposed to be a commentary on that awkward ‘next step’ after college — his insufferable parents would like it very much if he attended graduate school; after all, what were those four years of undergrad for anyway? — it’s painting anyone who hasn’t had a life plan in broad strokes and in a pretty ugly color.

Setting aside thematic content, The Graduate just isn’t that creative. It assesses the budding relationship between Ben and Elaine as they continue finding common ground, while an ever envious Mrs. Robinson goes out of her way to make life exceedingly difficult for Ben. It’s another tale of home-wrecking and heartbreaking. The malleability of a young man’s happiness: if he can’t get this, then he’ll settle for that. If not that, then something else. Ben, in the latter half of the film, goes into full-on creeper mode, seeking out Elaine after a major reveal causes her to move out of her parents’ house and back to college, where she apparently is now with some other guy. And while the conclusion ends on a curiously ambiguous note, it’s not wholly unpredictable. The whole damn thing has been about indecision.

All of this ho-ing and hum-ing is set to the tune of a fairly inspired Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack, which is one of a few things I’ll take from this movie and cherish. The film is brilliantly scored. So here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson. Seems other people will love you more than you will know. Just . . . not . . . me.

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in 'The Graduate'

Recommendation: If you like your movies testing your every last nerve, you might try out The Graduate. Yeah, it’s an early Dustin Hoffman performance but I didn’t find it a great one. A coming of age movie with almost no wisdom to impart, I have to say I am massively underwhelmed by this thing. 

Rated: PG 

Running Time: 106 mins.

TBTrivia: In Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft’s first encounter in the hotel room, Bancroft did not know that Hoffman was going to grab her breast. Hoffman decided offscreen to do it, because it reminded him of schoolboys trying to nonchalantly grab girls’ breasts in the hall by pretending to put their jackets on. When Hoffman did it onscreen, director Mike Nichols began laughing loudly offscreen. Hoffman began to laugh as well, so rather than stop the scene, he turned away from the camera and walked to the wall. Hoffman banged his head on the wall, trying to stop laughing, and Nichols thought it was so funny, he left it in.

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Focus

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Release: Friday, February 27, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Glenn Ficarra; John Requa

Directed by: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

The scent of expensive colognes and perfumes robbing the theater of breathable air undoubtedly seduced me into thinking the new Will Smith movie was better than it really is.

To focus on the negatives in a film that is this much fun is to largely ignore the art of the con, though. As Smith’s Nicky Spurgeon explains nonchalantly, deceit is created by drawing attention away from the action and centering it around something that, at the time, seems significant. That sentiment so easily can backfire in a film that plays it so casually like this one does; in a film that twists and turns until the very last minute, leaving the less hypnotized to question whether the directing tandem actually have an answer to it all or if they’re just making this up on the spot.

Again, logic matters less when compared to sheer entertainment value. The Fresh Prince seems refreshed playing a middle-aged male model alongside the rapidly rising young Margot Robbie, herself representative of Australian beauty. With a pair like this front-and-center, can I please be forgiven for temporarily writing this off as a 90-minute advertisement for Glamour or Vanity Fair? Magazines are indeed falling to the wayside in an industry hell-bent on revolutionizing itself, so why shouldn’t they try their hand in repackaging themselves in celluloid form? This is a great-looking cast enveloped by exotic locations and expensive, even if not believably costly situations. Toss in the audience-supplied bottle of Chanel No. 5, and voila.

Focus comes down to a complicated con between a world-weary pro and his apparent understudy, a pair who have up until the film’s final third been playing chess with one another’s wit and checkmating when it comes to unforced sexual tension. They meet in a night club where Jess (Margot Robbie) attempts to pull one over on Nicky, but is spurned by his advanced skill set. From there it’s a matter of one-upmanship between the pair as they fall into an ambiguous (er, or is that underdeveloped?) romance. Not that the feeling of mutual attraction is to be doubted but the intent behind the attraction sort of is. However, nothing is as apparent as Nicky’s love for the assorted fruits of the rich life, as evidenced in an exceptionally exciting sequence during the Super Bowl in New Orleans. The scene functions to expose Nicky’s true character: he has a major problem with saying no to exceeding what’s already excessive. It’s microcosmic of the trickery that lays ahead of us.

Will Smith hasn’t played a character this engaging since the days when he proudly sat upon a crashed alien craft and, chiefing on a Cuban, greeted its extraterrestrial operator with that famous smile of his and a sarcastic “welcome to Earth.” Nicky Spurgeon is often a lunatic but a calculating lunatic and his ‘partner’ in crime, while perhaps not evenly-matched in terms of recklessness, certainly is with her steely-eyed intensity. And I might be biased, but she’s also better-looking. Robbie is sweet on the outside but internally there burns a desire to settle an unwritten score, to take whatever it is that Nicky has and make it her own.

Scams range from casual pickpocketing to betting millions on the jersey number assigned to a random player on the sidelines during the aforementioned big football game, to tricking an Australian racing club owner into purchasing a bogus piece of equipment for three million Euro in order to allow another team, owned by the shady Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), the win. But when you think you’ve figured it all out, the script — and this really would have been easier to predict if I was focused on said plot and not on Jess’ revealing wardrobe — flips the dynamic between the two grifters, leaving us to wonder if there is to be an actual winner and a loser and whether it’s just going to be money lost in the exchange.

There is also a final reveal that comes close to burning Focus‘s reputation for being a non-stop joy ride. It’s one twist too many, one cliché too many and one development that’s nowhere near as delusory as the directors would have us believe given the convoluted network of scams and heists we patiently have sat through. Regardless of the risk involved in the long con, it’s not enough to dissolve the chemistry between Smith and Robbie. The two work from a pretty hastily-written screenplay and yet bubble over with charm and a natural ease with one another. Plus it’s just a lot of fun to see them screw over people deserving of it.

Focus isn’t a film to think about, unless of course your goal is to make your brain hurt from failed attempts at rationalizing plot holes that render the story as swiss cheese. It’ll make you think, but don’t con yourself. It’s a fun getaway but not much more. Not that it needed to be.

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3-0Recommendation: With more twists than a Coney Island roller coaster, this glamorous little romp starts to lose focus (or effectiveness, either way you want to look at it) over time but the performances and high spirit are too great to bring the ride to a grinding halt. A perfectly acceptable Saturday night diversion for anyone looking to see Will Smith back to form and Margot Robbie for another solid lead performance. Theatrical attendance not required, unless you just want to choke on perfume. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Where are the black people?!”

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Under the Skin

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Release: Friday, April 4, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

I don’t really know what it’s going to take to prevent me from seeing a Scarlett Johansson movie. It would have to take an unbelievably bad story or her sudden interest in starring alongside someone like Pauly Shore where I’d just toss my hands in the air and say, “You know what? No. It’s just not worth it. I don’t care how good she is. It’s. Not. Worth. It.”

Under the Skin, a new movie from a director you’ve never heard of, is f***ing incredible. And Johansson is just as good in it. This is one in a cluster of memorable dramatic outings as of late. Just off the top, her contribution to Spike Lee’s Her via a challenging off-screen performance, the way she seduced Joseph Gordon-Levitt and lifted his directorial debut Don Jon to heights perhaps otherwise unobtainable as northern Jersey girl Barbara Sugarman. This is still without even turning attention to Natasha Romanoff in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where she has carved out a nice little niche in that ever-expanding franchise and has effectively ensured a solid fall-back plan should her other ventures prove to be fruitless.

Fortunately she has no real reason to consider The Avengers a safety net. By now it should be abundantly clear the woman can more than hold her own in a variety of role types and is destined for extraordinary success in the future if she insists on being this good.

In Jonathan Glazer’s distressing, disturbing and occasionally even disgusting Under the Skin, the role is almost exclusively a physical one and is simultaneously her most matured and affecting role to date. Known only as “The Female,” her modus operandi is seducing random, unsuspecting men she comes across, often roadside and on their own. First she strikes up a conversation and then quickly lures them back to her place. While that sounds like a good deal, it’s a process that never ends well for the men, to say the least. Her physicality certainly helps elevate the procedure to bizarre extremes.

In fairness, it’s not just Johansson’s possibly insatiable appetite for challenging roles that makes this an experience to remember. Her performance contributes mightily, but its what director Jonathan Glazer is able to do with the fabric of reality surrounding this displaced alien that sears many a strange image into the viewer’s mind, where they are likely to reside for long after. And a script from Walter Campbell could not have been more intriguing and downright strange.

While “Laura” ambles her way across the barren, windswept landscape she lives and breathes very much in a ‘real,’ physical, somewhat hostile environment. The men she approaches time and again are apparently real Scotsmen who have never acted before and remain unaware that they’re being filmed until after the scene has been shot — a tactic that adds tremendously to the realism quota. Glazer takes things one step further by presenting our world as only surface-level, a platform from which he enjoys departing frequently and sending Dorothy tumbling down the dark rabbit hole over and again.

The trance-like state we occasionally lapse into wouldn’t be quite as powerful without the unnerving soundtrack, though. An original score from Mica Levi blends high-pitched (bordering on white) noise and slow, tempered beats to create the ultimate head-trippy experience. Whenever it fades into the background, the film is crisp with ambient sound — the pitter patter of rain and the fierce raking of the Scottish winds help put our feet on the ground on occasion. All this works seamlessly to affect the mood of the piece.

Under the Skin remains a thoroughly ambiguous film, however. For some it might just remain too much so, given the considerable lack of dialogue, lethargic pacing, and a clear decision to not explain many of the major developments in any great detail. These factors will undoubtedly repel the viewer who is wishing to be spoonfed more information than Glazer was obviously willing to provide.

Though he’s sure to secure a passionate fanbase, Glazer also has the power to divide general opinion right down the middle. His style isn’t one a great many are going to associate an actress of Scarlett Johansson’s stature with. This is understandable considering the profundity of the themes that are presented, and the obvious decision the director makes to not clarify many of them. Quite frankly I left this film with a lot of doubts and concerns about what I had just witnessed. I wasn’t sure what I was meant to take away, other than the privilege we have as humans to feel emotion and to experience them changing over time.

Such a possibility does not exist for something like “Laura;” she’s a clean slate. But watching her trying to fit in to society proves to be one incredibly fascinating experiment, one that won’t be forgotten soon. In this regard, the film succeeds immensely.

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4-5Recommendation: The major selling points of Under the Skin boil down to a brilliant performance from Scarlett Johansson and an opportunity to journey deep into the human psyche. Emotionally investing, visually arresting and occasionally deeply distressing, Glazer’s second feature is a challenging experiment that got under my skin and inside my head but in the best way possible. If you’re up for a cerebral challenge, you might find yourself in the same boat.

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “Do you think I’m pretty?”

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