Pick of the Week:
The Graduate (Criterion)
Some movies fade and other movies last, getting rediscovered by one generation after another. Since debuting in late 1967, there’s been little chance that The Graduate would disappear. Embraced by critics and moviegoers, especially younger moviegoers, alike, the film seemed to tap into the spirit of the rebellious age with its story of young college grad Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) determined not to buy into his parents’ materialistic lifestyle. Yet, to hear late director Mike Nichols tell it on an audio commentary recorded with Steven Soderbergh in 2007 — one of many features that fill out this new Criterion edition of the film — it wasn’t always so. The Graduate experienced difficult pre-release screenings on campus, where activist students demanded to know why it didn’t address Vietnam or the other issues of the day.
In a sense, they were half right. The Graduate is ’60s to the core, in many respects. Nichols’ second directorial effort has a frankness about sex that no film would have dared a few years earlier when the studio system had a tighter grip on its product. It was also a breakthrough in other ways. The film makes Simon & Garfunkel music and dialogue-free montages tell much of the story and Soderbergh points out how much the casting of Hoffman, not anyone’s idea of a conventional leading man, changed things. Yet part of the reason the movie worked then and still works now is how its generational clashes translate anew to each new generation. No one wants to become their parents.
And yet, for all its rebellious spirit, The Graduate is also the story of how we almost inevitably do. Revisiting the film on its 30th anniversary in 1997, Roger Ebert walked back some of his earlier praise. Ben now looked to him like a creep. His sympathies now went out to Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the family friend with whom Benjamin was having an affair. Ebert makes a strong argument, but his conclusions feel a bit off. Part of what makes The Graduate so enduring is the way it becomes a different film as you age and realize that growing up means making more compromises than you’d ever imagined you’d have to make. The key scene comes in the middle when Mrs. Robinson tells Benjamin how she gave up her passions with her youth. Benjamin doesn’t really hear her, grasp her sadness, or understand that by keeping her daughter (Katharine Ross) away from him, she’s making an effort — maybe misguided, maybe not — to protect her from the same mistakes. The film ends with an act of defiance then, a moment of doubt, a shot that Soderbergh says changes the whole movie. In a way, it’s just setting up viewers to see it differently the next time around.
The Best Picture race has been a strange one this year, one in which the frontrunner seems to shift from week to week. Right now, Spotlight has as good of a shot as any of the nominees, and its win would be well deserved. Director Tom McCarthy takes a no-nonsense approach to telling the story of how the Boston Globe‘s investigative reporting team broke a massive story about the cover-up of sexually abusive priests. It’s a case of a film’s subject helping to determine its shape. Like a great piece of journalism, McCarthy builds the story piece-by-piece as a remarkable cast (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, etc.) delivers unshow-y performances as people doing their best to expose the unthinkable in a way that will make a difference. It’s understated but no less effective for it: a film whose power comes from its care in walking viewers up to uncomfortable truths.
The Good Dinosaur (Disney)
The product of a troubled production and a muted critical and commercial reception, The Good Dinosaur is not one of Pixar’s best films. Its story feels patched together and its world less deeply thought-through than Pixar films past. But it’s still a Pixar film, which means it looks beautiful — rendering a prehistoric American West in gorgeous detail and Technicolor-like hues — its characters are endearing, and it has moments of great emotional power. It’s sub-classic, in other words, but still worth a look. Kids will likely be more forgiving of its flaws.
Fargo: The Complete Second Season (MGM)
The best season of television produced this year so far, the second season of this Coen brothers’ spin-off took the action back to the late-’70s for a story about the big-city mob trying to take over a smaller market that doubled as a mirror to what was going on in the country at the times.
The Big Sleep (Warner Archive)
Key Largo (Warner Bros.)
Two of the films that made Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall stars — and one of classic Hollywood’s most famous couples — make it to Blu-ray this week, and you can’t go wrong with either of them. They work even better as a double feature, capturing how Howard Hawks and John Huston made different use of the stars’ talents in stories of crime, corruption, and the psychological toll both exact on everyone they touch.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (Scream Factory)
One of the late Wes Craven’s most ambitious films, The Serpent and the Rainbow casts Bill Pullman as a scientist investigating a drug used in voodoo rituals against the background of the crumbling Duvalier regime. It’s not a complete success, but its best moments use the director’s command of dream imagery — much in evidence in A Nightmare On Elm St. and elsewhere — to tell a gripping story that offers some commentary on the way the First World uses the Third World.