All the President’s Men

This review was originally written as part of my USA Road Trip series over at French Toast Sunday.

June, 1972. Five men are caught having broken into the Watergate Complex, specifically the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Routinely checking out their trial, reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) begins to suspect something may be up through some odd details of the trial, and a shared phone number amongst the address books of some of the accused. Bob’s colleague Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) helps Woodward write a piece on the potential scandal, and the two of them – with the support of their editor Benjamin Bradlee (Jason Robards) and a highly secretive and selective informant known only as Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) – dig ever further into how far this story goes.
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Little Big Man

This review was originally written for French Toast Sunday as part of my USA Road Trip series.

In a retirement home, a 121-year old man – claiming to be the only white survivor of the battle of Little Big Horn – is being interviewed about the habits of the Native Americans. Instead he recounts his life story, starting when he was ten years old and, after his family’s wagon trail was attacked, when he and his older sister were taken in by a tribe calling themselves the Human Beings. We see the boy – originally called Jack Crabb until the tribe renames him Little Big Man – undertake many adventures, becoming embroiled with the likes of a devout Christian couple, a snake oil salesman, Wild Bill Hickok and General Custer along the way.little-big-man-5
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Finding Neverland

London, 1903. Acclaimed playwright J. M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) has just written a play, Little Mary, but unfortunately it hasn’t done too well. When his maid cuts the review from his newspaper, Barrie spies Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young boys playing in the park and soon begins spending a great deal of time with them. He finds their exploits to be inspirational, and indeed they inspire within him the idea to write a new play, one that children can enjoy as well as adults, about a boy who never grows up.
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The Graduate

Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has returned home from university a star scholar, with his parents and all their friends keen to voice their high hopes for him and his future, but Ben is more uncertain with what he wants to do. Amidst this despondency, Ben finds himself the reluctant object of the affections of Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s business partner, and the pair begin a secret and sordid affair, which becomes complicated when Mrs. Robinson’s husband (Murray Hamilton) has plans to set Ben up with his daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), obviously against the wishes of Mrs. Robinson.


This is one of those films that has become famous for a few significant moments that have become integral to pop culture. Moments like Anne Bancroft trying to seduce Dustin Hoffman, him framed in a doorway behind her strategically cocked legs in the foreground, or the ending, which gives way to one of my favourite final scenes in cinema (featuring the second time I’ve seen a crucifix being used as a weapon in recent times, after Liam Neeson cracked skulls with his in Gangs of New York). The first time I watched this film, as I’m discovering is the case with so many films, I didn’t understand it that much or in fact take any of it in, and the true meaning of the ending was lost on me. This time around I’m pretty sure I got it. Maybe I’m the right age now. Maybe it’s because I’ve now finished my studies and, only a few years ago, was briefly adrift in an ocean of directions I didn’t want to pursue. Or maybe it’s because I’ve seen (500) Days Of Summer, in which the ending is discussed and potentially ruined for anyone who hadn’t seen it or couldn’t remember it (like me, for example).

That’s the problem with such a culturally significant film; it’s been discussed and dissected not just on film blogs such as this one (and probably a few better ones too), but in many other areas of pop culture. The more famous sequences have been riffed on in the likes of
Starter For Ten, American Pie and several times in The Simpsons, whereas the overall plot can be heard in The Player (in which a sequel is pitched, set 25 years later), and in Rumor Has It (which I’ve not seen, but my knowledge of the plot led me to expect certain scenes in The Graduate that never actually came about). Fortunately, even though the basics of the plot have been in the public eye for some time now, there are a great many more charms which this film can rely upon.

Firstly, the acting. I’m starting to think that Dustin Hoffman could well be one of the most under-rated actors of his generation. Now, I know that he’s received two leading actor Oscars from seven nominations (the first of which came from this very film), but he’s always seemed overshadowed by the likes of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro from actors of that age. It hasn’t been helped by his far-from-stellar later work, but then Pacino and DeNiro are hardly innocent of that either. You can pretty much guarantee Hoffman will be the focus of a future Film-Makers series. In The Graduate, Hoffman takes a character who should be sympathetic and runs in the opposite direction, making him quite unlikable; someone who’s been handed everything but couldn’t care less. The true genius of the performance shines when Ben is at his most nervous. His subconscious, subtle nod when Mrs. Robinson asks if he knew she was an alcoholic;
his unintentional little whinny and half-swallow whenever he’s put upon the spot or caught off guard. You completely believe, despite the ten year age difference between Hoffman and the character he was playing, that he could be this bright young scholar, the former big man on campus, who now finds himself in the submissive role of a relationship he has no control of. Anne Bancroft is also noteworthy as the woman Ben was completely unprepared for. She retains a steely demeanour, forever in control of every situation she is in, usually because she pulled the strings to instigate it in the first place. 



The cinematography and editing were surprisingly good too – surprisingly because I didn’t remember them being very memorable the first time around. The brilliant opening, following Ben as he glides down an airport’s moving walkway, has been shamelessly ripped off by Tarantino in Jackie Brown, but it’s the cuts that really impressed me. Whether it’s Ben getting dressed as he leaves the swimming pool and walks through a doorway cutting to him walking into a hotel room and being undressed by Mrs. Robinson, or his mounting a lilo cutting seamlessly to mounting her on a bed. The editing from In The Heat Of The Night must have been superb to have beaten this at the Oscars.


The main detracting factor is the soundtrack. I was pleasantly surprised when Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound Of Silence opened the film, for it’s a song I’m happy to listen to. However, they perform the entirety of the soundtrack, which unfortunately is comprised of only about three of their songs, repeated over and over again, and I became truly sick of it all the second time Scarborough Fair was played in the space of a couple of minutes. I don’t normally mind the haunting, melancholic feel of their songs, but after too long I felt like I was drowning in cold syrup. The main problem is that they always sound bored of singing their own songs, and I’m certainly now bored of hearing them.


There were a couple of uncomfortable moments, but they were played out masterfully, particularly the initial encounter between Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson, who have known each other all of his life, just not in that present light. After giving her a lift home in his shiny new graduate-present car, Ben is requested to accompany Mrs. Robinson indoors, as she is frightened of entering an empty, dark house alone. He is plied with alcohol and music and led upstairs, torn between intense awkwardness and the desire to be polite and not offend his parents’ close friend. Just as you think things cannot possibly become any more excrutiating for Benjamin, after Mrs. Robinson has all but thrown her naked form at him, of course Mr. Robinson comes home and encourages young Ben to enjoy himself that summer, making sure he has a few flings. This is an embarrassing situation far beyond anything you will find on Curb Your Enthusiasm.


The script is also wonderful, and any film that can feature the lines “You’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends” and “I don’t love your wife, I love your daughter sir,” can do no wrong by me.

Choose film 9/10

Straw Dogs (1971)

When mild mannered American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) moves with his wife Amy (Susan George’s nipples) to her home village in Cornwall, the last thing they find is the peace and quiet he was hoping for in order to write his book. Instead, the locals take a shine to Amy and mock David, showing contempt that such a bookish person could have the prize of the village. What follows is an escalation of abuse and provocations, brought to a head with the horrifically violent rape of Amy, the unrelenting and ambiguous portrayal of which caused problems for director Sam Peckinpah, with the film remaining unreleased on video/DVD in the UK until 2002. Hoffman is more believable as the pre-broken David than the near-psychopath he becomes post-rape, and the climax – as drunken locals lay siege to his house as he harbours the local simpleton in danger of being beaten to death plays out like an 18-rated Home Alone, with swinging paint cans, icy steps and a loose tarantula substituted with blaring bagpipe music, saucepans of boiling alcohol and a sprung bear trap.
Choose film 6/10

Tootsie

Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is an actor in New York who, though talented and passionate about his work, finds himself unable to land a role due to age and physical limitations (I can be taller!) and a bad reputation for thinking too much about a character and arguing with the director. When he learns of an upcoming part on hospital soap opera Southwest General he makes sure he gets the gig, regardless of the fact that the character is female. This simple premise, man pretends to be a woman to get a job, would these days be most likely given to the likes of Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler, played entirely for gross-out laughs and hopefully tanking at the box office, but fortunately in 1982 Hoffman plays the part(s) relatively straight, giving arguably a career best turn in a body of work hardly lacking in expertise.
Hoffman is disturbingly convincing as Dorsey’s alter ego Dorothy Michaels, and the scenes where he transforms his appearance are at times uncomfortable to watch. George Gaynes and Bill Murray do their best to steal the show, respectively as a lecherous autocue-reading lead actor and Dorsey’s sardonic flatmate Jeff (You slut!) but it is Hoffman’s film, and nothing can detract from his central performance.
Choose film 7/10

Rain Man

Rain Man usually, and justifiably, receives plaudits for Dustin Hoffman’s performance as the autistic Raymond Babbitt, a role for which Hoffman won his second Oscar (after Kramer vs. Kramer), but it is the performance of Charlie Babbitt by Tom Cruise that should receive accolades too. His Charlie is wound up a little too tightly by the wishes of his recently deceased father to leave his fortune to Charlie’s brother Raymond, a brother Charlie didn’t know he had. He’s angry at his father, angry at his brother, and everyone around him as he struggles to come to terms with the aftermath of his father’s death. I don’t mean to underrate Hoffman’s performance at all, his is the stronger of the two, and it is the little moments that make it so, such as the moment of childlike confusion on the escalator.

Choose film 6/10