A Faster Horse


All the kings horses.

All the kings horses.

(2012) Documentary (Film Rise) Dave Pericak, Tom Barnes, Hau Thau Tang, Hal Sperlich, Gale Halderman, Edsel Ford II, Art Hyde, Jack Telnack, Prakash Patel, Julie Rochner, Kemal Cucic, Frank Davis, Steve Denby, Bob Fria, Carroll Shelby, Arjay Miller, Bob Kreipke, Henry Ford II, Marcy Fisher, John Clor. Directed by David Gelb

Americans love their cars. It’s an affection that borders on obsession with some (and crosses well past the line for others). It’s true that for a fairly significant segment of the population a car is a conveyance, a means of getting from one place to another. It’s a machine and most don’t obsess over their toasters or vacuum cleaners, am I right?

But for many, a car is an extension of themselves, their souls made steel. It isn’t necessarily just a means of getting from one place to another but a style of getting there. For many Americans, the Ford Mustang represents the pinnacle of cars.

The Mustang came into being for a lot of reasons. One was the Edsel, a massive failure that put the Ford Motor Company into a tailspin. When a young Lee Iacocca approached Henry Ford II with the idea of the Mustang as a performance car that was fast, fun and affordable, Ford was at first not impressed; this went against all the established thinking in the automotive industry; cars were then massive monstrosities in which bigger is better and the more metal the better. Innovation was not Job One at Ford back then.

But Iacocca, a master salesman, persisted and eventually Ford grudgingly agreed to give him half the normal seed money for bringing a car to market. Iacocca turned the project to Donald Frey and history was made. The release of the Mustang would be the most successful launch for Ford since the Model A. It continues to be maybe the most well-known model in the line; it certainly has some of the most cache.

When Ford decided to redesign the car (only the fifth in the model’s history) to celebrate the Mustang’s 50th anniversary this year, they turned the project over to Chief Engineer Dave Pericak. Documentary filmmaker David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) was given unprecedented access to Ford’s design labs, testing facilities and production facilities. We become flies on the wall as the new model is designed and slowly shaped into being.

Gelb gives us a great deal of context, showing the Mustang in all its incarnations using car commercials, home movies and iconic clips from movies like Bullitt (whose iconic car chase helped make the Mustang Steve McQueen-cool). He also gives us a sense of how important the car is to the American self-image. In many ways the Mustang symbolizes American freedom, American strength and American individualism.

The distinctive engine sound of the Mustang is used to great effect here, merging with the Philip Glass-like score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans to make an eclectic noise. By the time the movie finishes up you’re bound to have an emotional reaction – in fact Pericak discusses the emotional response to the release of the car at length.

It is mind-boggling at how much has to be done for a car to make it from the drawing board to the dealership, but you get a sense of it here and of the pressure that the Chief Engineer is under. Ford invested an enormous amount of money to make this car at a time when America was in its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and car companies were being bailed out by the U.S. government. Even now, seven years later, Detroit is still suffering but Ford is one of the shining lights in the automotive industry, thanks largely to the success of the new Mustang.

Even those who don’t love cars – and I’m one of those – will find this a fascinating film. I can only imagine those who are car enthusiasts will find this to be catnip. Either way, this is a terrific documentary that is definitely worth your time to seek out and view.

REASONS TO GO: Gives you a sense of what it takes to get a car from concept to market. Underscores the importance of the Mustang to the American psyche.
REASONS TO STAY: Bogs down a little bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing really that should disturb anyone.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 2015 Mustang is, as of this writing, a finalist for Car of the Year from Motor Trend.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
BEYOND THEATERS: Vimeo
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How It’s Made
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Sleeping With Other People

The Graduate


So here's to you, Mrs. Robinson.

So here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.

(1967) Comedy (AVCO Embassy) Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katherine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Elizabeth Wilson, Buck Henry, Brian Avery, Walter Brooke, Norman Fell, Alice Ghostley, Marion Lorne, Eddra Gale, Richard Dreyfuss, Elaine May, Mike Farrell, Kevin Tighe, Ben Murphy, Harry Holcombe, Noam Pitlik, Elisabeth Fraser, Lainie Miller. Directed by Mike Nichols

With Mike Nichols, one of the more acclaimed directors of the 60s and 70s, passing away recently it behooves the critic to look back at some of his best films and this one, his second feature, is considered by many to be his best which is a difficult choice to make when you consider you also have Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Carnal Knowledge and Silkwood to choose from.

Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) has just graduated from a prestigious Northeastern university and like many 21-year-olds then (and now) has not a clue where to go from here. After a party thrown by his parents to celebrate his graduation, he drives the wife of his father’s law partner, Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft) home where she tries to seduce him. A little unnerved, he turns her down and scurries home.

Afterwards, he reconsiders and awkwardly arranges a hook-up at a local hotel. The affair continues on through the summer; Mrs. Robinson just in it for the sex. Mostly though Benjamin just drifts in the pool at home, not able to make a decision on graduate school or heading directly into the workforce. He’s not even looking to date anyone, although Mr. Robinson (Hamilton) and Ben’s dad (Daniels) push him into dating Elaine (Ross), the daughter of the Robinsons. Benjamin is at first reluctant and does everything possible to sabotage the date but realizes that he was unkind to the poor girl who ran out of the strip club he took her to in tears. He tries to make it up to her and the two end up connecting and Benjamin feels like he might be falling in love.

Mrs. Robinson is NOT pleased and wants him to cut things off with her daughter. Benjamin has no intention of doing so, even though Mrs. Robinson threatens to come out with their affair so Benjamin heads this threat off at the pass and tells Elaine about it. This does not go well and she ends up fleeing back to Berkeley in the fall.

Benjamin, thoroughly besotted at this point follows her there and tries to explain what happened. That’s when Mr. Robinson gets involved, letting Benjamin know that their relationship is over and he will press charges if he continues. He also lets him know he is pulling Elaine out of Berkeley and marrying her off to Carl (Avery), a high school sweetheart leaving Benjamin at a crossroads.

The American Film Institute lists this as the 17th best movie ever made which is pretty impressive when you consider that well more than 100,000 films have been made all time just in the United States alone. Nichols established himself as one of the finest film directors of all time with his first two movies (Virginia Woolf was his first) after making his name as a theatrical director, which he returned to regularly over his long career.

In many ways this was a counterculture film in the sense that it looked at the hypocrisy of American culture and examined the angst of the younger generation which was at the time beginning to rise up and rebel against the norm. When placed in the context of its time, this was a monumental touchstone to the film industry who began to break away from the strictures of the studio system and were making movies that reflected the growing unrest and taking artistic and creative risks that would redefine the medium in the 70s and set the stage for a new golden age of movies.

Hoffman was not well known when he was cast for the part; his audition consisted of a love scene with Katherine Ross which Hoffman, who had never done one, felt awkward about. It was that awkwardness that convinced Nichols to cast Hoffman, as he was looking for a kind of underdog quality to Benjamin. Hoffman’s performance was a career-maker; it established him as a major new talent and led to one of the more interesting acting careers in the history of Hollywood. Bancroft also turbo-charged her own career, playing an older woman even though she was merely 35 at the time. Her performance here is considered one of the finest of her career.

And we can’t discuss The Graduate without talking about the soundtrack. “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel was one of the greatest songs ever written for a movie and plenty of other Simon and Garfunkel songs pepper the soundtrack, most notably “The Sounds of Silence.” Few films have ever utilized the songs of a single artist the way this one did and as well.

This is definitely a movie of the 60s and while some of the visual and dialogue references are somewhat dated, the movie stands up surprisingly well. Even today the affair between Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin can seem a little bit daring. One wonders how the movie would have fared if it had been made in 2014 and released now (as a matter of fact this Tuesday is the anniversary of the movie’s release). Something tells me that modern audiences would have taken to it as much as the audiences of its time did (see the Box Office Performance if you don’t believe me).

The Graduate is a bona fide classic and should be required viewing for all film students and film buffs alike. There are many transcendent moments in the movie – the climactic scene in the church is one that I can watch over and over again, for example. While the movie may feel a bit too sophisticated for some, it nonetheless remains a movie whose greatness cannot be denied.

WHY RENT THIS: Bancroft and Hoffman both set the bar high. One of the best films about sexual politics ever. One of the greatest soundtracks ever. Holds up pretty well approaching 50 years later.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little dated in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes and situations, sexual situations and a bit of mild foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Faye Dunaway was offered the part of Elaine but turned it down in favor of Bonnie and Clyde.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a one-on-one interview with Dustin Hoffman and an extensive six-page booklet with notes and photos from the film. The 40th Anniversary edition (from 2007) includes the Hoffman interview but oddly not the booklet. It does contain a featurette on how the movie influences modern directors, a four-song CD with the Simon and Garfunkel songs from the movie and finally, a featurette on the seduction scene and what prompted the characters to do it.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $105M on a $3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental/Stream), Amazon (Stream only), Vudu (buy/rent), iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodbye, Columbus
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: From Russia With Love

Warm Bodies


Love is not only blind, it doesn't have much of a sense of smell either.

Love is not only blind, it doesn’t have much of a sense of smell either.

(2013) Zombie Romance (Summit) Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Analeigh Tipton, John Malkovich, Rob Corddry, Dave Franco, Cory Hardrict, Daniel Kindress-Kay, Vincent Leclerc, Clifford LeDuc-Vallancourt, Billie Calmeau, Adam Driscoll, Robert Reynolds, Christine Rodriguez, Debbie Wong. Directed by Jonathan Levine

Zombies are in these days with the success of The Walking Dead television show (one of the best things on television right now) and movies like Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later. For the most part we see those imperiled by the zombie apocalypse. But what are the zombies thinking?

A young man wanders around the airport, listlessly. He doesn’t work there; he’s been dead for some time but has been reanimated by forces unknown. He has some memory but can’t remember his name, other than that it starts with R. So R (Hoult) it is. His best friend (if you can call it that) is another shuffling undead flesh-eater whose name might have begun with M (Corddry).

R’s life kind of sucks but then it kind of doesn’t. He collects things and puts them in the jumbo jet he’s converted into his home, a kind of zombie man-cave. He listens to old LPs on a turntable (where’s the power coming from for it?) and stares at little knick-knacks he picks up around the airport. Occasionally, he goes hunting for food with M.

There are zombies and then there are Bonies who are kind of like hardcore zombies who have given up. One day they just start tearing their own flesh off. They’re superstrong, super-aggressive and super-grouchy. There are a few humans left who live in a walled-off section of town. They are led by the military-stiff Grigio (Malkovich) whose daughter Julia (Palmer) and her boyfriend Perry (Franco) are leading a party of scavengers to get medical supplies for the survivors.

That’s where R’s hunting party finds them. The attack is brutal and the outcome inevitable. Perry is a big talker but not a great shot – and as you know from your zombie 101 that zombies can’t be killed with anything other than a head shot. Perry’s shot hits R in the chest which just pisses R off and he chooses Perry to be his brain snack.

When a zombie eats the brains of a victim, they are able to access the memories of that victim. R sees Perry’s memories of Julia and decides to save her, managing to smuggle her out and to the relative safety of his airplane. After an aborted escape attempt convinces her that it is terribly unsafe to go out of the plane, she agrees to stay with this most unusual zombie.

The presence of Julia is changing R rapidly. His vocabulary improves. He begins to have tender feelings towards Julia (although are they his own or a product of Perry’s memory? an intriguing question the movie doesn’t bother to pose) and there are physiological changes as well. What’s more, M and the other zombies are beginning to change as well.

The Bonies don’t like that one little bit and want to find R and stop this “cure” before it gets too far. Julia needs to get back home but her father and his fanatical soldiers would shoot R on sight (and it’s for damn sure that they’re better shots than Perry). What’s more Julia has developed some powerful feelings for R as well. Is this love as doomed as that of Romeo and Juliet?

It’s no secret that the story here is loosely based on the Shakespeare play with several characters referencing characters from the play (R=Romeo, Julia=Juliet, M=Mercutio, Perry=Paris etc.). That no doubt suits the audience that this is intended for just fine – the preteen/teen girls who adore Twilight and their moms. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most of the target audience is only aware somewhat of the R&J connection and have had little contact with the original play itself if any.

One of the things that works really well here is the chemistry between Hoult and Palmer. Hoult, who as a young man has become a seasoned veteran of the movies (some of you might remember him as young Marcus in About a Boy), is rapidly turning into a star. This might be the film that propels him to the next level. Palmer, whose done several genre films targeted towards young adults (I Am Number Four and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice among them), plays a plucky independent sort that the young teen girls seem to flock to these days. She and Hoult make an attractive couple (even if one of the is rotting away).

There are some pretty funny moments, particularly with R’s inner monologue. There is also a nice sweetness here that while not going to get you running out to the nearest zombie apocalypse to find yourself a boyfriend, it will at least touch the teddy bear softness of your heart. The only real complaints I have about the movie are the CGI Bonies which are unconvincing (which is a rather charitable assessment) and several plot points that kind of get little play, like Julia’s reaction to the news that R ate her ex. Not something most girls are going to get past very quickly I would think.

Still, this isn’t a bad movie at all. In fact, it’s a pretty good one – much better than I thought it would be, wondering if the filmmakers would be pandering to that target audience (they do but they don’t – Levine and cohorts seem to be of the opinion that teen and preteen girls appreciate a good movie more than a mediocre one). It’s actually a movie that I wish more Twihards had gone to see – I think those pining away over the absence of Bella, Edward and Jacob might find this right up their alley.

REASONS TO GO: Endearing and funny when it needs to be. Nice chemistry with Hoult and Palmer.

REASONS TO STAY: CGI Bonies are weak. Glossed over some important plot points.

FAMILY VALUES: ¬†As there are zombies, there are extensive scenes of zombies eating people as well as getting shot in the head, although the gore is relatively mild (think The Walking Dead). There’s a lot more bad language though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Nora character was part-Ethiopian with brown skin in the book but was changed to a Caucasian for the movie.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100; I’d say the reviews are slightly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fido

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Amour