Book Review: Mike Nichols: A Life by Mark Harris

Mike Nichols.

That’s a name that should be familiar to anyone who claims to be a student of film or a lover of Broadway.  Originally born Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin, Germany, the rise of the Hitler led to Nichols and his family immigrating to the United States in 1939.  By that time, the seven year-old Nichols had already been completely bald for three years, the result of a bout of whooping cough.  Like many who have had first-hand experience with trauma, Nichols developed an appreciation for the absurdity of life and a rather dark sense of humor.  After studying to be an actor, Nichols found fame as a satirist and a comedian, performing with Elaine May.  He would later go on to become not only an important theatrical director but also an important film director.  With his directorial debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he helped to destroy what was left of the production code.  With The Graduate, he helped to define the generation gap.  With Carnal Knowledge, he explored sexual frustration and ennui.  With Catch-22, he proved that even a great director can struggle to adapt an unfilmable book.

Mike Nicholas was an important director but, because his work was never quite as flashy as some of his contemporaries and because he spent as much time directing for the stage as for the movies, it always seems as if he runs the risk of being overlooked by film lovers.  Luckily, Mark Harris’s biography, Mike Nichols: A Life, not only presents the details of his life and career but it also makes a convincing case that Nichols is a director who, despite all of his awards and the admiration of those who worked with him, has been a bit underrated.  Harris convincingly argues that, while Nichols’s films dealt with timeless issues, they also often defined the era in which they were made.  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate are both definitive films of the 60s.  Carnal Knowledge is a film that captures the disillusionment of the early 70s, with Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel playing men destined to never escape their self-imposed mental prisons.  Working Girl captured the greedy atmosphere of the 80s while Primary Colors epitomized America in the 90s and Closer captured the confused morality of the aughts.

To his credit, Harris doesn’t make the mistake of idealizing Nichols.  Harris is just honest about the Nichols films that don’t work as he is about the ones that do.  The failure of Catch-22 was as due to Nichols’s new-found cockiness as a director as it was to the unwieldy source material.  On What Planet Are You From?, Nichols develops an almost instant and somewhat irrational dislike of comedian Garry Shandling, which is a bit unfortunate as Shandling was not only the star of the film but also in need of a director who would work with him to conquer his insecurities.  This biography is honest about both Nichols’s strengths and his weaknesses and, as such, it becomes a fascinating look at one artist’s creative process.

It also become a look at how American culture changed from the 1960s to the first decade of the 21st Century.  Nichols made his directorial debut in 1965 and directed his final film in 2007.  For 42 years, Nichols recorded the cultural transformation of America, from scandalizing America by having Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton curse at each other to making a film about the policy decisions that would eventually contribute to 9-11 and the new America that was formed as a result of that tragedy.  Mike Nichols: A Life isn’t just about Mike Nichols.  It’s about how American culture, for better and worse, has developed and changed over the last century.

If you’re looking for a good and in-depth biography about a director who deserves to be rediscovered, Mike Nichols: A Life is the one to go with.

In the Line of Duty: The Price of Vengeance (1994, directed by Dick Lowry)

Johnnie Moore (Brent Jennings) is a former limo driver turned criminal mastermind.  The members of his gang look up to him with cult-like admiration.  On his orders, they have been robbing businesses all over town.  Johnnie says that he is a man of God but he has no hesitation when it comes to ordering his men to threaten and sometimes kill any witnesses.  When Detective Tom Williams (Michael Gross) comes to close to finally convincing someone to testify against the gang, Moore orders his assassination.  When the members of his gang fail to get the job done because none of them want to shoot Tom when his family is around, Johnnie does it himself by dressing up as a clown and gunning Tom down in front of Tom’s son.  That was Johnnie’s biggest mistake because now, he’s got Tom’s best friend, Detective Jack Lowe (Dean Stockwell), after him.

After Street Wars, NBC’s next two In The Line of Duty films both focused on FBI sieges.  Both The Siege at Marion and Ambush in Waco featured true stories of the FBI trying to arrest religious fanatics and having to wait out a stand-off.  Ambush in Waco was controversial because it was not only based on the Branch Davidian stand-off but it was actually filmed while the stand-off was still going on.  Perhaps because of the controversy, The Price of Vengeance tells a much simpler and less exploitive story.  Johnnie Moore is a criminal who kills a cop.  Jack Lowe makes it his mission to put him away.  There’s no risk of anyone watching siding with Johnnie Moore like they may have done with David Koresh while watching Ambush in Waco.  Moore kills a man in front of his son and then laughs about it.  Everyone watching is going to want to see him get punished and they are going to cheer on the efforts of law enforcement to make sure the punishment fits the crime.

The Price of Vengeance is a typical police procedural but it has a good cast.  After playing a killer in the first In The Line of Duty movie and the lead FBI man in the third one, Michael Gross is cast as the victim here and he’s so likable that you’ll be angered when he gets gunned down.  Dean Stockwell brings his no-nonsense, down-to-Earth style to the role of Gross’s best friend and Brent Jennings is smug and evil as Johnnie Moore.  Mary Kay Place, Kathleen Robertson, and Justin Garms play the members of Gross’s family and they all do a good job of showing the trauma that they’ve suffered as a result of his murder.  Keep an eye out for Courtney Gains, playing a member of Moore’s criminal crew.  Gains played this same character in a dozen different films.  If you see Courtney Gains in a movie, look out because he’s up to no good!

The Price of Vengeance is a standard 90s cop show.  Nothing about it will take you by surprise but it’s partially redeemed by its cast.

My Dolphin, By Case Wright

I met My Dolphin 15 years ago. It was Christmas Day at Kitty Hawk. I didn’t have any kids yet and the presents were done. I was not hungover; those sorts of mornings happened later. It was a nice Christmas; in contrast to my Christmases growing up- they were very scary because of my Old Man. He would try to stay out of his cups for some holidays and that was always much much worse. I remember wishing that he would just drink and get it over with. Christmas Day back in those days were like distilled fear; I’d get smacked around and go for long walks in Virginia until late afternoon broke and my Old Man’s no drinking pledge would subside.

I was older now, but I still got anxious Christmas morning and liked to go for those walks alone. I needed to feel that wind . . . that cold December wind brace against my cheeks. On Christmas, Kitty Hawk has grey skies and bitter salty winds in beautiful abundance. I liked the way the wind smacked me around safely.

I left the beach house front door, shut it smartly, and remembered to lock it and check it. You can’t trust locks and doors at the Outer Banks the rust and decay is ubiquitous and the salt blows through everything like alpha particles clumsily meandering in space toward wherever they want to go. My shoes made that scraping sound where the salt and sand and shoes come together. I turned and looked ahead to the Dunes that I’d crossed thousands of times. There’s always these openings along the beach road that takes you along the length of island, until the next bridge, and the next barrier island and the next and the next. I always entered to the left entrance where it’s filled with countless footprints no matter what time of day; the wooden entrances just don’t have the same feel. I always looked both ways first, not for cars but to see just how empty it was both along the left and right. I went up and down the Dune entrance, seeing the ocean with that green color it has.

I was about to exhale, but then I heard the screams.

I saw a man trying to pull a beached dolphin back into the ocean. It was low tide and he would be pulling and then the dolphin would roll back to shore. Then, I was upon the man and breathing deeply. I had run at a sprint without thinking. The Man was skinny and no older than 30 with a full beard with beat up jeans and a wool sweater. He grabbed me and had tears in his eyes.

“Help!” “I can’t get him in! I already called emergency marine life, but they’re not answering.”

I grabbed the rear fin – (assume that what it’s called), the man grabbed around his center, and we dragged the dolphin towards the water. We were losing our footing. I remember digging against the wet sand, pulling as hard as we all could. His skin was rubbery, but rough from the sand. He tried to help us by bucking to get back into the sea. His blood was on my hands and washed away. With a pull of all of our strength, the Man, the dolphin, and I fell into the mini-shelf where ocean, sand, and pebbles met. The waves would hit and push us all back. This pattern went on ’til our hands were numb and our clothes were heavy and soaked. Every step was like fighting through foot deep wet snow. Finally, the three of us were exhausted.

I pulled the dolphin to the beach by myself; the Man told me that he was going for help, but we knew he wasn’t coming back because he couldn’t meet our eyes. I hugged My Dolphin and looked into his eyes- they had clear awareness and thought; that’s when I knew that for the first time in my life that I was going to have to help a person die.

My Dolphin was so scared. He wasn’t bucking or squirming anymore; we were too tired for that. He was in my arms and looked at me pleadingly. I shook my head, held my tears in, and told My Dolphin- “It was going to be okay. It was going to be okay.”

He sighed, looked away for a moment at the sea, and looked back at me- calmly. His eyes were telling me that it was going to be okay. My Dolphin died in my arms. Then, I let myself weep.

I’m sure that he had a name among his family, but I’ve always called him My Dolphin that is who he is and will remain to me. We all die, but My Dolphin passed in the arms of another person who loved him. We were going to be okay…. we were going to be okay.

Film Review: Operation Mincemeat (dir by John Madden)

Based on a true story, Operation Mincemeat takes place in 1943, during the second World War.  The British are planning an invasion of Sicily, both to break Hitler’s hold on Europe and to also knock Italy out of the war.  The problem is that the attack on Sicily makes so much strategic sense that the Germans have spent months preparing for it and, even if successful, the invasion will cost an untold number of British lives.  Somehow, British intelligence must trick the Germans into thinking that the British are planning to invade Greece instead.

With the help of Lt. Commander Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew McFayden) come up with the plan to fool the Germans.  A dead body will be disguised as a British officer.  The body will be transported, via submarine, to Spain, which was technically neutral during the war.  The body will wash up on shore and, when the body is examined, a note detailing Britain’s invasion of Greece will be discovered and passed along to the Germans.  Because the Germans have been fooled by a similar trick in the past, Montagu and Cholmondeley create a fake backstory for “Maj. William Martin” and soon start to think of him as being a someone who truly did live.  Joining them to create a life for Major Martin is Jean Leslie (Kelly MacDonald), a secretary in the office who volunteers a photo of herself to be placed in Martin’s wallet.

Of course, things get complicated.  While plotting out the operation, Jean starts to fall in love with Montagu, whose marriage is currently strained by Montagu’s obsession with his work.  (Because he knows what will happen to a Jewish family in the UK if Germany invades, Montagu has sent his wife and his children to the U.S.)  Cholomondeley is in love with Jean and soon finds himself growing jealous of the man that he’s been assigned to work with.  Meanwhile, the head of British Intelligence (Jason Isaacs) wants to investigate Montagu’s brother for being a communist.  As for Ian Fleming, he keeps himself busy by writing a book.  In fact, so many members of British Intelligence are identified as being aspiring novelists that it becomes a bit of a running joke.

I have always appreciated a good World War II film and I enjoyed Operation Mincemeat.  It’s a bit of an old-fashioned film, of course.  The F-word is used exactly once (which makes this a rarity amongst modern British films) and there’s one scene in which a member of British intelligence discreetly gives an informant a handjob in return for information.  Otherwise, this is pretty much a film that you could safely show your grandma without having to worry about her getting depressed over how much movies have changed since her day.  Old-fashioned or not, it’s a well-made film, full of good performances and sharp dialogue.  It’s not a flashy film but it’s very nicely put together and it’s hard not to admire the craftsmanship responsible for it.  Operation Mincemeat is all the more interesting for being, more or less, true.  While the love triangle was invented for the film, it is true that Ian Fleming was a part of Operation Mincemeat and the film’s use of him as a character works surprisingly well.  The scene where a young Fleming tours the World War II version of Q Branch provides some nice comic relief, particularly when Flemings comes across a wristwatch that doubles as a mini-saw.

What elevates Operation Mincemeat is its theme of loss.  Almost all of the major characters have lost someone or something to the war.  Jean Leslie is a widow.  Cholomendely’s brother was killed in action and his body is still in Europe.  Montagu has had to send his family away for their own safety.  For them, the Major Martin becomes a stand-in for all of the people that they’ve lost.  The effort to make Martin into a real person allows all of them one final chance to honor their loved ones.  Major Martin becomes a stand-in for all British soldiers and civilians who sacrificed their lives to battle Hitler’s war machine.  Operation Mincemeat becomes about more than just fooling the Germans.  It becomes about being worthy of the sacrifice that it took to defeat them.

As is shown in the film, the real Major Martin was a vagrant named Glyndwr Michael, who died after eating rat poison.  The film suggests that Michael deliberately killed himself but no one will ever know for sure what led to him eating that poison.  After his death, he was given the uniform of a British officer and his pockets were filled with things that would identify him as being Major William Martin.  Though he never knew it, Glyndwr Michael become one of the greatest heroes of World War II.  Operation Mincemeat serves a worthy tribute to both Glyndwr Michael and Major William Martin.

Scenes That I Love: Norma Desmond visits Cecil B. DeMille in Sunset Boulevard

Today, the Shattered Lens observes the 141st birthday of filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille.

Today, if Cecil B. DeMille is known at all, it’s for directing Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments.  However, there was much more to DeMille’s career than just that one film.  DeMille got his start during the early silent era and he quickly established himself as one of Hollywood’s first superstar directors.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, he survived the transition to sound and he remained a force in Hollywood at a time when many of the other silent directors were fading into obscurity.  DeMille played a key role in the founding of what would become the American film industry.  He began his career in 1914 and he made his last film in 1958.  That’s quite a legacy.

In 1950, when filming Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder needed someone to play the key role of one of Norma Desmond’s former directors.  Who better to represent the old style of Hollywood than Cecil B. DeMille?  In the scene below, DeMille plays himself.  Norma Desmond is, of course, played by Gloria Swanson, an actress whom DeMille had directed in the past.

From Sunset Boulevard, here’s a scene that I love.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Sam Fuller Edition

4 Or More Shots From 4 Or More Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

On this date, 110 years ago, Samuel Fuller was born in Massachusetts.  Before he became a filmmaker, Fuller was a crime reporter and a pulp novelist.  His films were often melodramatic and unapologetically sordid.  They were also often dismissed when they were initially released but almost all of them were subsequently rediscovered by audiences who appreciated Fuller’s striking visuals and the often subversive subtext to be found underneath the surface of his genre films.

Today, we celebrate Fuller’s legacy with….

4 Shots From 4 Sam Fuller Films

Pickup on South Street (1953, dir by Samuel Fuller, DP: Joseph MacDonald)

Shock Corridor (1963, dir by Samuel Fuller, DP: Stanley Cortez)

The Naked Kiss (1964, dir by Samuel Fuller, DP: Stanley Cortez)

The Big Red One (1980, dir by Samuel Fuller, DP: Adam Greenberg)

Music Video of the Day: You Think You’re Tough by Ratt (1983, directed by ????)

Before Tawny Kitaen became famous for appearing in Whitesnake videos, she dated Robbin Crosby, the lead guitarist of Ratt.  Those are Kitaen’s legs on the cover of Ratt’s first self-titled album.  Decorating those amazing legs with high heels and rats results in a classic 80s music image.

The video below is for one of the songs from that album, You Think You’re Tough.  You Think You’re Tough was Ratt’s first single and was released with a cover version of Rufus Thomas’s Walking The Dog.  The video keeps things simple, highlighting the band’s musicianship and saying, “These guys can really play!”