Thursday, November 20, 2014

R.I.P. Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? died Wednesday at the age of 83.

I was fortunate enough to grow up with grandparents who had the means and the time to take me to the theater now and again. From a young age, I was exposed to a wide variety of musicals – “The Producers,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Jersey Boys,” etc. Each left me with a distinct memory such as the chandelier crashing down on the stage at the act break or the first time Frankie Valli sings “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”

When I was 20 and living in Northern California, a friend and I headed into the city to see “Monty Python’s Spamalot.” It was revelatory. To choose a moment, a memory, from “Spamalot” is to recount the play in full. Each song, each scene, each set piece landed perfectly. The actors were wonderful and script sparkled, but what I remember most is the staging, that glorious direction by the incomparable Mike Nichols.

The famed Academy Award-winning director died Wednesday of cardiac arrest. He was 83. Not known necessarily for his visual flare or an auteurist stamp one could identify on his work, Nichols’ gift was to find the heart of a scene and dig it out. No one set a stage like Nichols. In play after play and film after film, he created spaces that showcased often-brilliant actors and stellar writing, propping them up with just the right moves at just the right times.

In a career that spanned genres from comedies and musicals to thrillers and horror, he did not try to make the work fit his style. Rather, like a chameleon, he fit his style to the material, always playing to his strengths and the strengths of his collaborators. No matter what he was working on, he never seemed out of his element because he made his environment work for him.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton star in director Mike Nichol's debut film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
His opening one-two punch of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate ranks alongside the best first two films of any director in cinema history. If he had stopped then and there, he would still be remembered as a legend, but for 40 years, he produced and directed a seemingly endless array of audience-beloved and critically hailed classics both on stage and on screens big and small.

It is difficult sometimes to properly eulogize someone such as Nichols, who constantly produced solid work over the course of decades. In our culture, we tend to lionize people who flame out, the artists who arrive in a brilliant flash of light then collapse back into darkness just as quickly. In contrast, Nichols has been a point of light on the horizon for longer than many of us can remember. He was a brilliant comedian and biting satirist whose work has been around more than twice the span of my lifetime.

Now, he is gone, and our sadness is for the loss of an artist and all the great art he will never make. Our sadness is for the wife, children, and grandchildren he leaves behind. Our sadness is the same as when any great person passes away. But, this is different. This is the sadness of missing someone who was a constant in our lives. His work made us laugh, made us cry, made us think, and it is easy to feel as though it always would. Instead, we are left with a hole, and to fill it, we have 40 years of beautiful art.

Katherine Ross and Dustin Hoffman consider the future in one of the great film endings of all time in Mike Nichols' The Graduate.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

TV on the Radio on Film: Music and melancholy in Rachel Getting Married

Mather Zickel, Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Tunde Adebimpe (left to right) feel the love in Rachel Getting Married.

If I could have someone else’s voice, it would be that of Tunde Adebimpe. The TV on the Radio singer is capable of the kind of deep croon and plaintive wail that will forever remain elusive to most of us mere mortals. There is heart, soul, and pain in every lyric. His singing soothes the senses but inflames passions. It is easy to understand how one could fall in love with the man based on his voice alone, which makes him the ideal groom in Jonathan Demme’s underappreciated 2008 gem, Rachel Getting Married.

Adebimpe has appeared in only a few films, mostly shorts or in minor roles, but in the quiet part of the husband-to-be, he is integral to the success of Rachel Getting Married. He plays Sidney, who in marrying Rachel is marrying into the Buchman family. Working off a wondrous script by Jenny Lumet, Demme invites the audience to be part of their wedding, his handheld camera swerving in and out of rooms and conversations like a guest trying to find a familiar face.

Much of the film focuses on a never-better Anne Hathaway as Kym – Rachel’s little sister and the self-proclaimed harbinger of doom. Kym is the one just out of rehab, but it quickly becomes clear the whole family is emotionally broken, wrecked by the death of its youngest member sometime ago. In contrast, Sidney’s family and friends represent a calm breeze against the maelstrom of the Buchmans, a kind of peace toward which one could not blame Rachel for running.

Amid the chaos of family drama and personal demons, however, there is perhaps the most gloriously joyful wedding ever filmed. The event takes place at the Buchman family home, and from the moment we step through the front door, we are greeted with the beautiful, near-constant music that flows from every room. The soundtrack is awash with the melodies and rhythms of life, and no matter how dark the story gets – and it gets quite bleak – the celebration of the film’s central couple is inescapable.

Everyone has a song to sing, and in one of the film’s best sequences, the guests gather for pre-wedding performances by the talented, musically inclined members of the family. Each person’s song is so unique that while we never get to know most of them, we have a definite sense for who they are and how much this all means to them.

Truth be told, we do not learn much about Sidney either, but Adebimpe’s presence is enough. In his few short scenes, he projects such tenderness and care that we are fully sold on this being the right man for Rachel. In this respect, the movie saves its most wonderful trick for last. As the couple exchanges vows, Adebimpe breaks out an a cappella version of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend,” and the weight of it is unmistakable.

Everything in this family has always been about Kym and her disease, but Sidney sees Rachel for the special person she is. Adebimpe, who is capable of shaking the rafters with the power of his voice, pulls it all the way back in this scene. There are a hundred people at the wedding, but when he sings, he is singing only to his bride. If your eyes are dry, you are as broken as the Buchmans start – though it should be noted they are quick to tears during this sequence, as well.

Adebimpe is an inspired choice for the role and is one of many perfect elements in one of my favorite films. Adebimpe’s band, TV on the Radio, released its new album, “Seeds,” this week, the group’s first since one of its members died of cancer. The album is a potent mix of sorrow and strength, evoking the band’s great early works but demonstrating growth and resilience beyond what audiences have heard before. It is good to hear Adebimpe’s voice again backed by the band he fronts, but forgive me as a movie fan for hoping he returns to the cinemas every now and then.

Apologies for the digression from the film year at hand, but I could not pass up the opportunity to discuss Rachel Getting Married, which if you have not seen it, I cannot recommend highly enough.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

New movie review: Foxcatcher

Channing Tatum and Steve Carell are men standing in the shadows in Foxcatcher.

Among the hardest things any of us will ever accomplish is to step out of the shadows. We all start in the shadows, be they cast by our families, our histories, or our heroes, yet there is an innate human need to run to the light. Most of us cannot help but desire to eclipse the darkness and bask in the warming glow of the fire, but the closer we get to the source, the bigger the shadows become. The only way to succeed is to step back and create our own light.

Bennett Miller’s strange and stirring new true-crime drama Foxcatcher is about two men who go to great lengths to escape the shadows and be their own light, but in so doing, they succeed only in spreading darkness. Based on the story of millionaire heir John du Pont and the Olympic wrestler brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, Foxcatcher is a master class in using atmosphere to achieve powerful storytelling ends.

Set mostly in Pennsylvania over the course of about a decade, the sun never seems to shine on Foxcatcher Farm, the extravagant estate owned by the du Pont family. An icy chill hangs over the grounds. It is a world frozen in time, a place where money and power trump all, appearances are everything, and might makes right. Onto this tundra walks Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz. A stranger in a strange land, he has only one person on whom to rely – John du Pont – which is precisely the trap that was set.

The basic facts of the real story are adhered to rigorously. As a result, if you are aware of the history, you will know what is coming. If not, you are in for a series of disturbing surprises. However, by hewing so closely to the true-life material, Miller provides a platform for the kind of deep character study rarely attempted in thrillers. The elements are of melodrama, yet the effect is anything but.

In his first three films – Capote, Moneyball, and now Foxcatcher – Miller has displayed a knack for taking events from America’s recent past and turning them into fodder for exploring the motivations of great men doing morally ambiguous work. He is not so much interested in what happened as why it happened and the decaying culture that allows such things to occur.

John du Pont has turned the outmoded fortress of Foxcatcher Farm into a private fantasy land, where with his infinite wealth, he can craft the narrative that suits him best. He wants to be respected, admired, and loved, not for his family’s name or money but for his own accomplishments. The irony is that in his quest, he wears the name as a shield and wields his checkbook as a sword. Nothing can penetrate his delusions.

The du Pont family wealth comes from weaponry and chemicals. It is tied up in the U.S. national defense and the idea of American exceptionalism. Standing on this platform, John du Pont takes it upon himself to lead the U.S. to Olympic wrestling glory – never mind that Mark and Dave Schultz each won gold medals long before they even knew the du Pont name. His plan is to found a team, fund a training center, and take credit for the glory of leading America to the gold.

When first we meet Mark Schultz, he is delivering a motivational speech to a crowd of disinterested and confused elementary school children. Then, we learn it was supposed to be his older brother, Dave Schultz, giving the speech. Though both won gold medals at the 1984 games, it is clear from the outset that teacher, family man, and all-around good guy Dave Schultz is the admired one. Mark Schultz is the little brother, the afterthought, and the perfect pawn.

Mark Schultz is invited to be the cornerstone of Team Foxcatcher, and though he invites his reluctant brother along, part of him is flattered and excited by the idea of striking out on his own. It seems no one has ever trusted him with this kind of responsibility before, and he is determined to do what he must to succeed on his own terms.

Much of the first two-thirds of the film is a stunning, elaborate, and eerie pas de deux between Steve Carell, as John du Pont, and Channing Tatum, as Mark Schultz. Both actors tear down our preconceived notions of them as performers and inhabit these roles with the kind of abandon most audiences could never have imagined.

Carell, who has gone dramatic as sad-sacks and misanthropes before, sheds any lingering remnants of his nice-guy persona and portrays John du Pont as a mad, manipulative monster whose own need to project a heroic image outweighs the needs of anyone in his orbit. Much will be written about the makeup Carell wears, but the performance is more than a prosthetic nose and capped teeth. He is the physical embodiment of a man who walks with the confidence money buys but with the insecurity inadequacy breeds. Inside, he is twisted, isolated, and corrupted by power. He is a madman.

In contrast, Tatum is given less to do but nails every small detail and explosive outburst of the role. He is not quite a simpleton, but he is a hulking man-child who has been beaten down on the wrestling mat and in life. He is all-too eager for somebody to show confidence in him but too blind to see his brother has been in his corner – literally and figuratively – all along. Tatum has few memorable lines but speaks volumes with his massive frame, hunching his shoulders, crossing his arms, and sliding his feet to convey the full measure of the man he is.

Mark Schultz does not need a father figure, but John du Pont is determined to be one, even if he has to put the words in his would-be protégé’s mouth. He exerts his dominance so early and so often that the younger man has no choice but to bend to his will. John du Pont can only escape his shadows by casting a shadow, and so the conflict begins.

Caught in the middle is the older brother Dave Schultz, played with understated insistence by the always reliable Mark Ruffalo. He is a man torn among loyalties to his brother, to his country, and to his wife and children. Dave Schultz is a benevolent, centering presence who wants to do right by all of his obligations but is engulfed by the darkness around him. For him, there is no good move because when you are on a pedestal, stepping in any direction means falling to the earth below.

Foxcatcher is bathed in darkness and shadows. It takes as its subjects a nefarious man and a blind boy who struggle to escape the pits in which they find themselves. But, its final and most haunting assertion is its message about people like Dave Schultz. Sometimes the hardest place to stand is in the light.

See it? Yes.