Dustin Hoffman

Rain Man

01/10/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s traditionally been the case that a successful play is turned into a movie but, more recently, there’s been a trend towards the reverse of that process, particularly when it comes to turning comedies into musicals. Happily they’ve decided to play this one straight. Rain Man first saw the light of day in 1988 as a film, directed by Barry Levinson and starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. It was, of course, a huge (and deserved) hit. This version is the inaugural production of ‘Classic Screen to Stage,’ with Ronald Bass’s original screenplay adapted by Dan Gordon. The story retains its 1988 setting, which is a good decision, since the world is now much more aware of autism and those who have the condition are treated far more sympathetically than they once were.

Charlie Babbit Jnr (Ed Speleers) is a hard-nosed automobile salesman operating just on the edge of the law. When we first encounter him, he’s closing a couple of deals over the phone, promising to pay cheques to people on the other end of the line and planning to take his fiancé, Susan (Elizabeth Carter), off for a naughty weekend. But then comes the news that his father has passed away, an event that barely causes him to raise an eyebrow. He and his father have been estranged for years. But, Charlie’s mother being long dead, there is a considerable estate to be handed over so, of course, Charlie and Susan head to the family’s home town for the funeral and the reading of the will.

Charlie is disgusted to find that all he’s been left is his father’s old car and his prized collection of classic roses. The three million dollar estate is to go to an unnamed party. Understandably miffed, Charlie starts doing some digging and soon discovers that he has an older brother he never knew about. Raymond (Mathew Horne) is sequestered in an institution. He is what was then known as an ‘autistic savant.’ Unable to cope with everyday situations, Raymond nevertheless has an incredible ability to remember facts, numbers and images. At first merely interested in getting his hands on half of the estate, Charlie practically kidnaps Raymond and takes him across country towards L.A., meaning to use him as ransom for his demands – but, as the two men spend time together, something suspiciously like brotherly affection begins to blossom between them.

At first, I don’t think I’m going to enjoy this adaptation. The opening scene, which is just people talking to unseen characters on the phone, doesn’t really catch fire. But as soon as Raymond makes an appearance, so the story takes a massive step up. Horne, who seems to have spent the past decade trying to atone for the (admittedly rather dismal) Lesbian Vampire Killers is really rather good in this, and he and Speleers make an engaging double act. Like the  film, there really isn’t that much for the female actors to do, but Carter makes the best of what she’s been given. (Just a thought. Couldn’t one of the doctors featured here have been a woman?)

Morgan Large’s production design is nicely done, all illuminated outsize squares and rectangles that rise up and down to form portals, posters and advertising hoardings, while the various set changes are slickly choreographed to the sound of classic 80s pop songs. The show seems to scamper along so briskly that I am surprised when the interval comes and equally surprised when the show reaches its poignant conclusion.

If you loved the film (and let’s face it, who didn’t?), the chances are you’ll enjoy this too. And thank goodness they’ve not attempted to turn this into Rain Man: The Musical!

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

30/10/17

Hold the front page! Adam Sandler has made a good film! No, seriously, I’m not making this up. He’s one of the featured performers in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and he’s pretty damned good in it.

Of course, those who know these things will already be aware that, in 2002, he made a film called Punch Drunk Love directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and he was pretty good in that too. (At a push, I’d even argue that The Wedding Singer is a decent movie.) But even his most avid fans will have to admit that such occurrences are pretty rare and that most of his considerable cinematic output is either to be avoided like the plague or to be viewed in that ‘so bad its good’ ironic sort of way.

Here, Sandler plays Danny, the son of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a once acclaimed sculptor who, through a combination of bad luck and bad business decisions, now finds himself coasting on his previous successes, doomed to watch helplessly as other, less talented (at least in his estimation) artists, receive all the adulation that he thinks is his by right. Because of Harold’s single-minded determination to bolster his own ego, Danny has never really enjoyed anything approaching a career (he’s a failed musician), but has pretty much devoted his life to helping his daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), achieve her ambitions to become a film maker.

Danny’s sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), is also terribly unfulfilled, the kind of character who drifts along through life going wherever destiny takes her and it’s clear that she too has suffered because of her father’s emotional distance. Harold is now bumbling through a marriage (his fourth) to the alcoholic Maureen (Emma Thompson), but, when an unexpected illness threatens to carry him off, Danny and Jean’s half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller), comes to visit. Matthew is a highly-motivated and very successful businessman, who is trying to sort out his father’s financial straits but, when the three offspring come together for the first time in years, old resentments soon come bubbling to the surface…

This is the kind of territory Baumbach excels at and he has an absolute field day here. The story is told in episodes, each one jumping forward a little in time and there’s a delightful recurring motif of Danny losing his temper and the camera cutting away as if to censor his outbursts. Hoffman is excellent as the highly manipulative Harold and Stiller delivers a nice performance as a man being torn between caring for his father and punching him on the nose. There’s even a delightful cameo from Sigourney Weaver as… well, Sigourney Weaver. If you are expecting to see this at the cinema anytime soon, don’t be misled. This is another Netflix Original, ready for viewing at any time by its customers. However much traditional filmgoers may resent this phenomenon, it’s clear that it’s here to stay. Netflix has recently announced that they will be ramping up their production slate – and, as long as they continue to make quality films like this one, I say good luck to them.

Tune in and check this out – if only for the novelty of seeing an Adam Sandler movie that doesn’t make you reach of the ‘off’ switch.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Midnight Cowboy

 

25/06/17

Following hard on the heels of The Graduate, comes this beauty, shown as part of the Cameo Cinema’s Dustin Hoffman season. Released in the UK the year after Mike Nichols’s Oscar winner, this searing evocation of the grimy underbelly of life on the streets of New York was another of the late 60s film that fuelled my early interest in cinema. I first saw it forty-eight years ago and over the intervening period, it has lost none of its considerable powers.

Joe Buck (Jon Voight, eerily displaying the distinctive facial characteristics that his daughter, Angelina Jolie would make famous years later) is a troubled young dishwasher from the ass-end of Texas, who decides to reinvent himself as a cowboy-styled stud and travels to New York city with the intention of earning a living by seducing rich young women for money. Of course, the reality of the situation is quite different from his expectations. After what looks like an initial success, Joe ends up paying the first woman he ‘seduces;’ and things don’t improve when he meets ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), an impoverished huckster who volunteers his services as Joe’s ‘manager.’ Ratso cons money out of Joe on their first meeting, but when they meet up again, the two men move into a filthy derelict building where an uneasy alliance begins to develop.

As with The Graduate, what strikes me here is how edgy and uncompromising this film is and yet it was a huge mainstream hit, back in the day, winning three Oscars and receiving countless nominations for the performances of Voight and Hoffman. It steps fearlessly into territory that hadn’t really been seen in the cinema before, so much so that Nichols famously advised Hoffman not to take the role of Ratso, believing that it would kill his career. The evocations of Poverty Row New York are brilliantly rendered and there’s also an extended sequence set in an Andy Warhol free party that vividly depicts the burgeoning anti-establishment movement of the period. Filmed with an impartial eye by English director John Schlesinger, it expertly nails the shallow, consumer-obsessed tawdriness of America in ways that few native-born directors could hope to achieve.

Fears that the film would be exploitative are largely unfounded. The dominant theme here is the deepening relationship between the two male protagonists and how in the midst of grinding poverty, both of them are fuelled by impossible dreams. This is a triumphant film, from its hard-hitting opening to its poignant conclusion. If you get the chance to see this on the big screen, don’t let it pass you by.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Graduate: 50th Anniversary Edition

23/06/17

Forty-nine years ago, at the tender age of seventeen, I watched this movie in a run-down cinema in North Wales and it absolutely blew me away. (Why not fifty years, you might ask? Well, although released in America in ’67, the film didn’t actually reach the UK, until September of the following year.) It was one of the first movies to open me up to the possibilities of what cinema could do – it was fresh, innovative and quite unlike any other film I’d seen up to that point. It was also a superb adaptation of Charles Webb’s excellent novel of the same name.

Going back to rewatch it after so long felt decidedly odd. I have aged over those intervening years; my world has changed in so many ways – and yet The Graduate remains as pristine and remarkable as it was all those years ago, like some rare insect preserved in amber.

Golden boy Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns from college to the family home in LA, where he feels alienated, unable to connect with his parents and their wealthy friends, who insist on throwing parties for him and telling him what a wonderful future he has ahead of him. ‘I have one word for you, Benjamin. Plastics.’ When the predatory Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of Mr Braddock’s business partner makes a pass at Benjamin, he is at first horrified – but he soon rethinks his position and enters into a secretive and self-destructive affair with her. Things look set to continue in the same sorry vein until the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross), comes home for a visit and everybody urges Benjamin to take her out on a date…

The first thing that strikes me about watching this again is how incredibly vibrant the film feels and how audacious it is, compared to the kind of straightforward blockbuster product we see so often now. (Lest we forget, The Graduate won Mike Nichols a best director Oscar and was nominated for a whole clutch of other awards, and yet it has all the brio and experimentation of an alternative indie picture.) Look at the scene where Benjamin and Mrs R conduct a conversation in a hotel room, switching a light on and off, so that, for a good half of the time, the audience is left looking at an almost blank screen. And look at the sequences where disparate events are brilliantly and effortlessly intercut with each other to the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel. This is, quite frankly, genius. I’d also forgotten just how funny the script is. Benjamin’s hapless attempt to check quietly into a hotel room for his first assignation with Mrs R demonstrates a masterful slice of comic timing, which had me laughing out loud. Hoffman creates the first in what later proves to be a whole series of character studies, and Anne Bancroft, as the manipulative Mrs Robinson, manages to convey the sadness and desperation behind her hard-faced persona.

One last observation. The film carried an ‘R’ rating on its initial release, but now it’s sexual machinations are considered tame enough to qualify for a 12A. I’m not sure what that says about our society.

What else is there to add? Only that, if you’ve never seen it, then you should rectify that situation immediately. And if, like me, you have fond memories of the film and are worried that it might have dated badly, let me reassure you: it hasn’t dated at all. Indeed, in these conformist times, it shines like the cinematic diamond it undoubtedly is.

5 stars

Philip Caveney