Tag Archives: Mike Nichols

Scorecard: March 2012

[At the end of every month I post a rundown of the movies I saw that month, tallying them according to how much I did or didn’t like them. You can always see my recent watches here and my ongoing list of bests for the whole year here.]

Yes, I realize this is now exactly one month late. I blame two things – the TCM Film Fest and how gorram difficult it was to pound out that Blind Spot review of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which I wanted to finish before posting this recap which includes it. But now it’s done and I’m already working on April’s, so hopefully I should have that ready soon. Though it is extremely large, given the aforementioned TCM Film Fest. By the way, I haven’t posted anything on that here outside of the initial preview – I meant to, but time has been short – but there are a few reviews and more on the way over on Row Three.

What I Really Liked

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

So after I struggled quite a lot figuring out how I wanted to rate and review this film (see my Blind Spot entry for it), it ended up coming in the respectable high 600s on my Flickchart, which is basically square in my “really liked it” section. I’m not sure I actually “really liked” it, but it’s probably a fairly good spot for it, considering how many sides of me were warring over the film. For the record, when I FIRST ranked it immediately after watching it, it was in the 1100s somewhere. So it has definitely gone up in my estimation with a few weeks to mull it over. Anyway. I wrote a lot about it in the other post, so I won’t bother writing more here.

1966 USA. Director: Mike Nichols. Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis, George Segal.
Seen March 21 on DVD.
Flickchart ranking: 621 out of 2901

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

This was one that was on Jonathan’s list for me to see, and I pretty much went into it knowing nothing about it. Even though I had no expectations, it was not what I expected. :) Mostly because I always forget it’s directed by Terry Gilliam – whenever I remembered that, the batshit insane things going on onscreen made sense. Er, “made sense” is a poor choice of expression. Nothing in this movie (purportedly about a journalist heading to Las Vegas to cover a race) makes sense, but that’s what you expect from Gilliam – and apparently Hunter S. Thompson, though I have no familiarity with his work beyond this. Basically this movie is a very long, very whacked out drug trip, and while that description doesn’t usually appeal to me, this movie is almost non-stop WTF fun. And it’s definitely the best thing I’ve seen Johnny Depp do for a while (“this here’s bat country”). Like most Gilliam movies, it goes off the rails at the end (how could it not, in this case?), and I had some issues following the chronology that made some of the later parts a little less enjoyable, but I really had fun with it overall, even if I spent three quarters of the movie with my jaw dropped going “I can’t believe that just happened.”

1998 USA. Director: Terry Gilliam. Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci.
Seen March 30 on Criterion Blu-ray.
Flickchart ranking: 622 out of 2901

The Raid: Redemption

I first heard of this film after a few glowing reviews from friends who saw it at TIFF, who praised it for its non-stop, well-choreographed, high-octane fighting, even though the story of a SWAT team invading a drug lord’s apartment building is a little sparse. For a little while I was afraid I’d misheard and it was gonna be all guns, which would’ve been boring and just needlessly violent (in a boring way). But then the hand-to-hand stuff started, and all of that was awesome. So yeah. Just enough story to string a nearly 100-minute long fight scene on, and that was enough. Also, it was surprisingly well-paced for basically being a long fight scene, with some breather sections in there at just the right times. Definitely had fun with this.

2010 Indonesia. Director: Gareth Evans. Starring: Iko Uwais, Ananda George, Ray Sahetapy, Yayan Ruhian.
Seen March 24 at Arclight Hollywood.
Flickchart ranking: 991 out of 2901

The Hunger Games

The immense amount of hype and some decently cut trailers got me into the theatre for this even though I haven’t read the book, and I wasn’t disappointed in the least. Not that the film is a perfect one – the direction is lackluster and the camerawork and editing falls into all the traps of chaos cinema, using closeup shakicam and frenetic editing for no purpose whatsoever. That did kind of settle down a bit as the film went on, though most fight scenes were still indecipherable. And yet, I truly enjoyed the film anyway, because Katniss Everdeen is simply a great character, and Jennifer Lawrence does a great job of portraying her. She’s everything a hero should be – brave but not arrogant, intelligent but not infallible, trying to do the right thing, but often conflicted. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of her onscreen, so I’m hoping that Gary Ross’s replacement will not have quite as much affection for annoying camera and editing techniques.

2012 USA. Director: Gary Ross. Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Wes Bentley, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks.
Seen March 31 at AMC Burbank.
Flickchart ranking: 964 out of 2901

Possessed

This film has a pretty killer opening, with a sans-make-up Joan Crawford stumbling down a Los Angeles street in a daze, calling out the name “David” over and over again. She soon collapses and is taken to a hospital, where she eventually becomes well enough to tell what happened to her. The film settles into a more conventional noir melodrama, but as with any of these films, the interesting bits are in the details. The David she was searching for is Van Heflin, a man who she’d been obsessed with earlier, but who hadn’t returned her love. He’s basically an homme fatale, taking the place of the femme fatale so much more common in noir – he pops in every once in a while to turn the emotional knife in Crawford’s gut, with never a care in the world beyond himself. Eventually she snaps, falling into a schizophrenia that has her believing all sorts of things happened that didn’t, and the film is told closely enough from her point of view that it’s often hard for us to tell what’s real and what isn’t. The film may try to do too much, between the unrequited love, eventual loveless marriage, love triangle, stepmother-stepdaughter conflict, nurse-patient trauma, schizophrenia, murder/suicide/accident plot, and whatever else. But Crawford holds it together, and the noirish cinematography makes it often very interesting to look at. There’s a tracking shot near the beginning as she’s being wheeled into the hospital – her POV, so all ceilings going by until the exam room and two doctors pop their heads into the frame to exam her/the camera. Very nice, and alerts us immediately we’re in her shoes for the duration. That’s not an isolated good shot, either – the film is full of them. Not necessarily flashy or attention-grabbing, but effective and effortless.

1947 USA. Director: Curtis Bernhardt. Starring: Joan Crawford, Van Heflin, Raymond Massey, Geraldine Brooks.
Seen March 22 on DVD.
Flickchart ranking: 1224 out of 2901

What I Liked

Lilac Time

Capitalizing on his memorable single scene in 1927’s Wings, Gary Cooper played a WWI pilot again in this film, which is not nearly as great a film, but still quite watchable and with some very endearing parts. Colleen Moore is cute as a button as the French girl who tends to a contingent of British pilots stationed in France. They’re “her boys” as she feeds them, entertains them, carefully counts their returning planes and mourns for any losses, but when Cooper joins them, her affections run a little deeper for him. The film is really solid until the melodrama of their probably doomed romance takes over everything else, kind of ruining the great group dynamic the film had worked so carefully to balance for the first three quarters. Even so, it was an enjoyable watch, Moore was enchanting (especially in the lighter earlier sections), and it’s fun to see Cooper so young.

1928 USA. Director: George Fitzmaurice. Starring: Colleen Moore, Gary Cooper, Burr McIntosh, George Cooper, Cleve Moore.
Seen March 7 at Cinefamily.
Flickchart ranking: 1499 out of 2901

Rewatches – Loved

Modern Times

I ended up writing a whole long post about this film after seeing it at Cinefamily a few weeks ago, so I won’t belabor the point here. It’s in my all-time Top Twenty on Flickchart, so it’s pretty clear how much I adore this film. Even though I would probably now tend to favor Keaton et al over Chaplin et al, there’s not much that can come close to my love for Modern Times.

1936 USA. Director: Charles Chaplin. Starring: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard.
Seen March 14 at Cinefamily.
Flickchart ranking: 19 out of 2901

Rewatches – Liked

The Circus

It had been quite a while since I last saw The Circus, which is sandwiched up between The Gold Rush and City Lights in Chaplin’s filmography and rarely gets as much attention as either of those films. And granted, it may not be quite as amazing as they are, but it is still a pretty freaking awesome movie. Chaplin’s Tramp runs into a circus as he’s being chased by the police (this is after a tremendously funny and exciting chase through an amusement part, with way more sight gags and baits-and-switches than I remembered) and ends up inadvertently becoming the hit of the show. But not all goes as well for him on the personal front, as he falls in love with the ringmaster’s daughter, who only has eyes for the tightrope walker. The story invokes all of Chaplin’s trademark pathos, and has a lot of magnificent set-pieces as well – the most well-known are when Chaplin tries the tightrope walking himself, and when he accidentally locks himself into a cage with a lion. This film is definitely a worthy entry in Chaplin’s filmography, and gag for gag, probably as funny as any of them.

1928 USA. Director: Charles Chaplin. Starring: Charles Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Allan Garcia, Harry Crocker, Henry Bergman, George Davis.
Seen March 28 at Cinefamily.
Flickchart ranking: 728 out of 2901

Sunshine

I still think the third act falls apart, though I will say I didn’t mind it as much on a second viewing, when I knew what to expect and wasn’t totally thrown off-guard by the tonal shift. I still much prefer the more meditative part before they find the Icarus I, but I can understand better now where that last bit was trying to go. I just don’t think it totally worked. That said, I did have a fun time this go-around finding comparisons to Apocalypse Now (I hadn’t seen it yet last time I watched Sunshine). Even with the third act let-down, it’s still a pretty top-notch sci-fi movie, and I like the film overall enough to still rank it pretty highly.

2007 UK. Director: Danny Boyle. Starring: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Troy Garity, Cliff Curtis, Mark Strong.
Seen March 24 on DVD.
Flickchart ranking: 854 out of 2901

A Shot in the Dark

When this popped up on Instant, I was seized with a sudden desire to rewatch it, since I hadn’t in a very very long time, so I made Jon watch it, too (he hadn’t seen it before at all). It’s easily the best of the Pink Panther films, with Clouseau taking center stage and getting himself into some pretty ridiculous situations. I will say, though, that the comedy was a lot slower and less hysterical than I’d remembered – it really takes its time setting up gags and letting them play out perhaps a bit longer than necessary. I won’t say I was disappointed – I still think it works quite well as both a comedy and a mystery, but memory had amped up the hilarity more than is actually the case.

1964 UK. Director: Blake Edwards. Starring: Peter Sellers, Elke Sommer, George Sanders, Herbert Lom, Tracy Reed.
Seen March 2 on Instant Watch
Flickchart ranking: 749 out of 2901

Blind Spots 2012: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

This has been an extremely difficult review to sit down and write, largely because this film elicited such strong and conflicting reactions from me both while viewing it, and thinking back on it afterwards. I have never felt so in turmoil about a film, even while in the midst of watching it, my thoughts and emotions swirling back and forth even within the same scene. Loving it, hating it, sympathizing, being repulsed, being moved, understanding, feeling detached, exasperated, annoyed, intrigued, heartbroken, unresolved. Of course, maybe that’s utterly appropriate, given that the film is about a couple constantly at each other’s throats, except when they’re in each other’s arms, who drag a younger couple along with them on a night of “fun and games.” But what is the game, and what are the rules, and who’s having fun? The answers to those questions shift as often as my emotions did, and with as little warning or explanation.

George and Martha are a middle-aged academic couple, respectively a professor in history and the daughter of the university’s long-time president. As the film opens, they’re wending their way home after a university party, chatting quietly while lovely and calm background music plays. But even at this most peaceful point in the movie, they quickly fall into a rhythm of argument, clearly their default mode of interacting with each other. As they return home, Martha quotes one of Bette Davis’s campiest characters, proclaiming “What a dump,” then hounding George to tell what movie it’s from. At this point, the movie was already grating on me pretty badly, and it’s only getting started!

Soon a young couple comes over to continue the party, but they don’t know what they’re getting into any more than I did. The night wears on, Martha goading George continuously and flirting with the young man, while his wife gets more and more inebriated. But George, though far wearier and less vulgar, can give as good as he gets from Martha, his barbs carrying an air of intellectualism that makes them cut even deeper. Meanwhile, the younger couple aren’t innocents, either, but have their own skeletons in the closet. The film is almost a one-room drama (as the original Edward Albee play was), focusing on the four characters’ ongoing conversation and interactions. Most of it is very antagonistic, quite mean-spirited, and rather stagey and histrionic.

And yet. And yet. I can’t simply write the film off, and not only because I know how highly regarded it is. Somewhere about halfway through it started getting under my skin, and I’ve found it often popping up in the back of my mind since I finished it. As more details start to come out about George and Martha’s past and the “games” they play with each other (as George says, “we’re not ‘at’ each other, we’re just exercising what little of our wits is left”), I found myself more and more intrigued both by these people and by the structure of the film itself. It lets us in only slowly, at first only showing us George and Martha as they are now, a bitter couple who have grown almost complacent in their antagonism. But there’s more to them than this, a depth that soon becomes apparent in Burton’s weary eyes, his sighs as he accepts or counters yet another of Martha’s hurls.

Really, if it hadn’t been for Burton, I doubt I would’ve made it through the entire film. Taylor’s performance is often praised (and she won an Oscar for it), but except for one or two times when she quieted down and revealed some of the pain behind her own animosity, her performance largely tends toward shrill and histrionic, and I rarely if ever believed her. Burton, though, I believed all the time. All his emotional beats worked completely for me, and I felt every catch in his voice, every callback to old pain revisited. I will say that Taylor came very close to redeeming herself for me in the final scene, by which time the film had put me through such a confusing emotional wringer that I was as drained as she and Burton (the kids are there mostly as audience surrogates and something for George and Martha to play off of; they have their own stuff going on, but it’s relatively insignificant in comparison).

So by the end, the film’s power had definitely gotten to me, but I still don’t know if I could rewatch it any time soon. And yet…I do want to rewatch it. I want to study why it had the effect on me that it did. Very rarely am I this confused about my reaction to a film, and on the one hand, I know the film is powerful for affecting me the way it did, and the last act is pretty devastating however you slice it. Meanwhile, the first act is viciously funny (it worked better for me after I opted to think of it as a comedy – until somewhere in the second act, that becomes impossible). Also, I credit Mike Nichols and cinematography Haskell Wexler for some greatly affecting lighting and camerawork, which did a whole lot to balance out the theatricality of the dialogue. Even when I was recoiling from the characters and the mean-spiritedness on screen, I was still usually fascinated by the way it was shot. Even so, I can’t in good conscience say I think everything in it worked. Sandy Dennis also won an Oscar for her role, which I don’t understand, because she’s largely just acting a silly drunk girl the whole time, and she’s almost more annoying (if more innocuous) than Martha. Taylor I can’t get behind totally, and the young man is pretty dull.

And one thing about the ending. Vague spoilers follow.

The ending depends on the revelation that something George and Martha have been talking about the entire night is actually an elaborate fantasy, the breaking of which fantasy because reduces Martha to nothing. Now, I have in my life indulged in an awful lot of elaborate fantasy, which has, at certain times in my life, been very real to me. But despite the undeniable sincerity with which Burton and Taylor treat this aspect of the film, it stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point to believe that two well-educated adults had kept up a fantasy just between the two of them that has this kind of power over them. It’s one of those things that worked while I was watching the film because Burton and Taylor put it over, but five minutes after the film was over, I was going “wait, really?!”

The “who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf” is an academic variation on “who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” and in this case, apparently, the big bad wolf is a life free from illusions, free from facades – a life that Martha in particular fears to face. But I got that from a Wikipedia article, not from the film, at least not on a first viewing. And even with that, I’m not sure WHY she fears it so much, and why George, who seems better adjusted, would help her keep up such a strange and elaborate fantasy for so long, and then finally break it that night. Those are questions that will have to wait until I get to another viewing. But returning to the world of George and Martha will be exhausting, and I’m not sure when I’ll be ready for it. At this point, I’m inclined to rate it highly simply because I think the extremely unsettled feeling I had both while watching it and thinking back over it is intentional. On the other hand, I’m still not sure I like that, and while certain scenes worked like gangbusters, as a whole I can’t say I enjoyed watching it. But not every film is made to be enjoyed. So I end up where I started – conflicted.