Director Mike Nichols' comic portrayal of the sexual and social shams of the upper middle class still works on almost every level in The Graduate.
DVD CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Graduate (Fortieth Anniversary Collector's Edition) (Grade: A)
U.S.; Mike Nichols, 1967, MGM
In 1967, it was the great date movie of the year: The Graduate, Mike Nichols' sweet-and-acid romantic comedy about a confused, drifting California college graduate, Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman, in his spectacular movie star debut), how he gets seduced by his parent's married friend, the voracious Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and then falls in love unwisely with his older lover's beauteous daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). The movie, based on Charles Webb's novel, was such a mammoth hit, and Nichols' stage-screen career was then going so swimmingly, that some critics, including me, underrated The Graduate at the time, the better to celebrate 1967's other great hot movie-cultural landmark, Bonnie and Clyde.
But it's worn very well. Nichols' comic portrayal of the sexual and social shams of the upper middle class still works on almost every level. The Buck Henry-Calder Willingham script is bitingly funny. The cast is tops -- including Murray Hamilton, William Daniels (the stage Peter of Albee's The Zoo Story) and Elizabeth Wilson as the other parents, Norman Fell as Ben's paranoid landlord, and bits by Henry and Richard Dreyfuss. Aces also: the melting and super-catchy Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, the hazy or cool color cinematography by the great Robert Surtees, and, of course, the on-the-nose direction by Nichols, a master of angsty comedy.
Nichols cast the short, dark, ethnic Hoffman in a role better suited on the page for the young Robert Redford -- and Hoffman helped turn the story into a comic nightmare of lust, love, alienation and humiliation. Meanwhile, Mrs. Robinson, in Bancroft's sly hands, became a chic, icy-hearted monster. (Doris Day, who turned him down, had been Nichols' first choice.) Few movie seduction scenes are ringed around with as much comic dread as theirs -- and it suited the time.
The Graduate is a movie that really brings the '60s and the Vietnam era back with a rush: all the anxiety, cynicism, pop verve and defiant romanticism. When the businessman partygoer drops in Ben's ear the key word "plastics," it encapsulates the materialism (and anti-materialist humor) of the time. When we watch Ben floating in his parents' pool, wafting along on the flowing folky melodies and honeyed voices of Simon and Garfunkel, we feel the '60s pop-drenched gestalt.
And when Ben races to the wedding (swept along by S & G.'s irresistibly bouncy Grammy-winner "Mrs. Robinson"), reaching the church window at the very last possible moment and screaming "Elaine!" it's hard not to feel for him, cheer for him at least for a moment. (The unsentimental Nichols claimed Ben and Elaine and their generation would probably wind up like their parents -- and we know now that many of them did.)
Extras: Commentaries by Hoffman, Ross, Nichols and Steven Soderbergh; documentary, featurettes, Simon and Garunkel soundtrack CD; interview with Hoffman, screen tests.
Away from Her (A)
U.S.-Canada; Sarah Polley, 2006, Lionsgate
Setting a comedy-drama about a romantic triangle partly in a home for the elderly, with two of the lovers suffering from Alzheimer's disease, might seem at first strange or distasteful. But here is a movie -- adapted from the short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Alice Munro by actress Sarah Polley in her feature writer-director debut -- that blows away any qualms: a film exquisitely poignant, warm, humane and beautifully made.
Away from Her may well be an Oscar contender next year, and, if it is, we may be rooting for its star, Julie Christie, absent from the screen and the radar too much in recent years, but triumphant here. Christie plays Fiona, an older but still beautiful woman whom we fear is disintegrating before our eyes. Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent is her husband Grant, an English professor and casual philanderer now racked with guilt and jealousy as his beloved wife, taken for granted and now seemingly in another world, switches her affections to another home resident, silent, possessive Aubrey (played by longtime Robert Altman mainstay Michael "Tanner" Murphy). Olympia Dukakis makes it a quadrangle as Aubrey's wife Marian, adding salty, tough-talking realism that anchored the gossamer romances of Moonstruck.
Polley is a spot-on actress (especially in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter) who didn't try to capitalize on her youthful blond stardom, but instead kept making interesting, independent films. She now seems smarter than we knew. Her first directorial feature is a stunner, easily one of the year's best movies. Obviously influenced by Ingmar Bergman's chamber dramas, it's a film not unworthy of the comparison. You may have missed it in theaters; don't let it slip away from you twice.
Extras: Commentary by Christie, deleted scenes with commentary by Polley.
DVD BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Vincent Price MGM Scream Legends Collection (Overall grade: B)
U.S.-U.K.; Various directors, 1974, MGM
Vincent Price, who succeeded Boris Karloff as the screen's king of the horror movies, was one of the great elegant movie hams. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, a sometime member of Orson Welles' Mercury Players, Price was a scene-stealing character actor through the '40s and early '50s, in classics like Laura, The Song of Bernadette, Leave Her to Heaven and (check this one out) Champagne for Caesar. Then, in 1953, the 3D House of Wax made him a horror star and he went from William Castle's black-and-white stunt shockers to Roger Corman's color Edgar Allan Poe fantasias to the era of most of the movies in this package, which tend to coast along on Price's deliciously sneery and playfully sadistic portrayals of upper class scoundrels and monsters.
Price's presence almost always elevates (and sometimes overpowers) his vehicles. We perk up when he shows up, because we know that the horror, however dark, will be leavened with his wit and sophistication, softened by his epicurean smile. Here are some familiar Price shows from the '60s and '70s. And though there's only one classic here -- Michael Reeves' sinister Cromwell-era hair-raiser, Witchfinder General, it's a set that won't fail to give you some Price-is-right laughs and shivers.
Twice-Told Tales (C+)
U.S.; Sidney Salkow, 1963
Instead of Poe, we get Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Tales of Terror (B)
U.S.; Roger Corman, 1962
Three mini-Poe movies; including the gem "Cask of Amontillado" with Peter Lorre doing it to Price.
Witchfinder General (The Conqueror Worm) (A)
U.K.; Michael Reeves, 1968
Price is a vicious witch-hunter who will get his. Excellent period horror; like a cross between Mario Bava and Cy Endfield; writer-director Reeves famously committed suicide at 25.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (B-)
U.S.; Robert Fuest, 1971
Don't mess with Dr. Phibes, not even if you're Joseph Cotten, Hugh Griffith or Terry-Thomas.
Dr. Phibes Rises Again (C)
U.K.; Fuest, 1973
One Phibes too many.
Theater of Blood (B)
U.K.; Douglas Hickox, 1973
Great typecasting: Price as a murderous ham Shakespearean cashing in his critics.
Mad House (No rating)
U.K.; Jim Clark, 1974
I haven't seen it, but here's another casting coup: Price as a murderous horror movie actor.
OTHER NEW RELEASES
U.S.; John Woo, 1997, Paramount
John Travolta as straight arrow FBI agent Sean Archer switches faces with psycho terrorist Castro Troy (Nic Cage), and is incarcerated in an ultra-secure prison in order to uncover and foil a massive L.A. bombing plot. But too bad: The imprisoned, hospitalized Castor awakens from a coma, grabs Sean's face, escapes, and a typical John Woo shoot-'em-up extravaganza ensues. I doubt anyone else could have made a good movie out of this script, but action master Woo once again delivers the goods. As always, he keep things popping, drenches the screen with comedy noir, and never lets you take a breath.
Stars Travolta and Cage have a ball imitating each other and sliding in and out of their various characters: Sean, Sean-as-Castor, Castor, and Castor-as-Sean. This two-disc DVD also earns its "+" with great extras, including an alternate ending they really should have used.
Extras: Commentaries by Woo and the writers, Deleted scenes, alternate ending with Woo commentary, featurettes, trailer.
From Beyond (Unrated Director's Cut) (B-)
U.S.; Stuart Gordon, 1986, MGM
Another H. P. Lovecraft-cum-Roger Corman low budget shocker from the Re-Animator team -- including director Stuart Gordon -- who revved up Madison student theater in the late '60s, started Broom Street theater and later spawned Chicago's Organic Theater too. A personal note: I acted for Gordon during his Madison years; for all his Re-Animator acclaim, he's underrated. With Jeffrey Combs and Madison vet Carolyn Purdy-Gordon).
Jazz Icons: John Coltrane (A-)
U.S.; various directors, Jazz Icons
John Coltrane is one '60s jazzman who never ages; his tenor sax work still sings, soars, stings, shakes you up or makes you dream. The early '60s concerts here are indifferently filmed for TV, but musts anyway. All of them feature Coltrane's classic quartet: McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums.
The Fly Collection (C)
U.S.; various directors, 1958-65, 20th Century Fox
The lesser of two Vincent Price packages this week, this set offers three Flies when one would have done nicely. The original, adapted from a Playboy sci-fi story by George Langelaan, stars David Hedison as the scientist who loses his head, and Price as a saturnine bystander. Vincent returns for the first sequel, and Brian Donlevy shows up for the second, which deserves to be swatted. David Cronenberg's genuinely shivery 1986 remake, with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, makes flypaper of them all.
The Fly (B-)
U.S.; Kurt Neumann, 1958)
Return of the Fly (D)
Edward L. Bernds, 1959
The Curse of the Fly (D+)
U.S.; Don Sharp, 1965
The Lost World (B)
U.S.; Harry Hoyt, 1925, 20th Century Fox
The Lost World (D+)
U.S.; Irwin Allen, 1960, 20th Century Fox The 1925 movie of The Lost World, based on one of the Professor Challenger adventure novels by the immensely prolific and always entertaining Arthur Conan Doyle -- who had more than Sherlock up his sleeve -- is notable for providing an early showcase for the splendid table-top animation of Willis O'Brien (King Kong). The remake, an early misadventure by disaster-master Irwin Allen, shows Michael Rennie, Jill St. John and Claude Rains menaced by unexciting lizard trick photography.
Sister Act (Two pack) (C)
Various directors, 1992-93, Buena Vista/Touchstone
Two tries at a glossy mix of comedy, sentimentality and music, with Whoopi Goldberg as a lounge singer hiding in a convent from the Mafia and jazzing up the nuns. The first works, the second is too much sassy piety.
Sister Act (B-)
U.S.; Emile Ardolino, 1992
Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (C)
U.S.; Bill Duke, 1993
Prime Suspect 7 -- The Final Act
U.K.; Philip Martin, 2006, Acorn Media
Last bow for Helen Mirren's justly acclaimed police detective and mystery-solver Jane Tennison.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
U.S.; Yves Simoneau, 2007, HBO
From Dee Brown's book.
Bruce Springsteen: In Performance.
U.S.; 2007, Hurricane, Intl.
U.S.-Germany; Alfred Kirchner, 2007, Deutsche Grammophon
Richard Wagner's opera, conducted by James Levine.
Germany; Wolfgang Wagner, 2007, Deutsche Grammophon
Wagner's opera, conducted by Horst Stein.
(U.S.; Various directors, 2006, Buena Vista/Touchstone
TV's medical series.
U.S.; Boris Sagal; 1981, Koch Vision
Well-liked TV historical spectacle, with Peter O'Toole
The Sissi Collection
Germany; various directors, 2007 Koch Lorber
The wildly popular (in Europe) Romy Schneider "Princess/Empress Sissi" films, based loosely on the life of Elisabeth of Austria.
The Sea Beast
U.S.; Millard Webb, 1926, Televista
Silent adaptation of Moby Dick, with John Barrymore