Saturday, April 30, 2011

April 2011

NETWORK (1976)
What made Sidney Lumet, who died in April, such a compelling filmmaker for a half century—from his high-powered debut, “12 Angry Men” (1957) to his innovative, cynical final film, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)—is that he never ventured far from his signature theme: the struggle to remain moral in an amoral society.

Whether it’s an honest cop navigating the streets of New York, a thoughtful juror, a guilt-ridden Holocaust survivor, a determined district attorney, a cynical TV executive or a down-on-his-luck lawyer, Lumet’s characters are defined by their principles and their ability to resist the temptation of corruption.

Those characters, challenged emotionally and ethically, attracted great actors and, under the director’s Midas touch, produced some of the most intense, complex and exciting performances of the past five decades. Under Lumet’s direction, 18 actors earned Oscar nominations, but that doesn’t include Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb in “12 Angry Men,” Jason Robards in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962)—arguably the greatest performance by an film actor—and Ralph Richardson in the same film, Sean Connery in “The Hill” (1965), John Cazale in “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), Treat Williams and Jerry Orbach in “Prince of the City” (1981), Jeff Bridges in “The Morning After” (1986), Christine Lahti in “Running on Empty” (1988), Nick Nolte and Armand Assante in “Q&A” (1990), Ian Holm in “Night Falls on Manhattan” (1997), Peter Dinklage in “Find Me Guilty” (2006) and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Albert Finney in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”

Yet as memorable as the acting always was in a Lumet picture, what elevated his best work was his impeccable ear for intelligent, sophisticated screenplays, honed during his years directing TV dramas in the 1950s. And leading that list is Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network.”

For this filmgoer, only Woody Allen has made more pictures than Lumet that I’ve watched over and over again, inevitably finding them just as compelling and entertaining the third time as I did the first time. And leading that list is “Network,” Lumet’s greatest achievement and one of the 50 finest American films ever made.

It’s easy to dismiss Lumet’s contributions to this daring critique of American values and the loss of humanity in the race for money and power in honoring the erudite script by Chayefsky. While the screenplay is among the most literate and thoughtful ever written, there are good reasons why Chayefsky chose Lumet to direct his prize.

First, Lumet shared with the writer roots in early TV and was equally versed in the vagaries of the industry. Second was Lumet’s acumen with actors: he elicited great performances from no less than six actors in “Network” (not to mention Lee Richardson’s commanding narration). And third, Lumet was not a director of comedies: he never makes a show of the incredulous situations—TV news taken over by the entertainment department; Howard Beale’s on-air rants; a show starring terrorists—treating them as seriously as the 6 o’clock news used to be. If anything, this approach makes the comic aspects more authentic and the realistic plotlines compellingly immediate. In lesser hands, the film could easily have turned into an over-the-top, dark yukfest that might have been hilarious, but not a timeless masterwork.

What also makes Lumet the perfect director for “Network” is his comfort with talky pictures. His two superb Eugene O’Neill (the ultimate writer of long monologues) adaptations, “The Iceman Cometh” for TV in 1960 and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” along with “12 Angry Men” and “Fail-Safe” were perfect preparation for the heartbreaking, soul-searching speeches, many taking place in tight quarters, that make “Network” such a memorable movie.

The famous “Mad as Hell” scene (it’s on YouTube if you don’t have the DVD) offers a prime example of Lumet’s mastery of storytelling. Starting outside in the rain with the lone figure of Howard Beale, the scene moves into the TV studio as Beale takes his place behind the anchor’s desk. Lumet moves us back and forth between Beale’s rant, the frantic excitement in the control booth with its wall of monitors and then finally to a single TV in the living room of Max Schumacher (Holden), where his daughter opens the window onto the sight of the neighbors mimicking Beale’s rant. The camera pulls back to show an entire block of open windows and screaming New Yorkers: the power, for better or worse, of television demonstrated starkly and dramatically in about five minutes.

As Lumet reveals in “Network” and in so many other films, understanding the human heart is more important in creating great movies than flashy camera movement or breakneck editing.

In his excellent 1995 book, “Making Movies,” in which Lumet details every aspect of the filmmaking process, he summarizes his career philosophy:

“I have no preconceived notion that I want the body of my work to be about one particular idea. No script has to fit into an overall theme of my life. I don’t have one….The movies will define themselves as I make them. As long as the theme is something I care about at that moment, it’s enough for me to start work. Maybe work itself is what my life is about.”

What is most surprising about this fascinating historical sidebar to the Lincoln assassination is that it took over 100 years of cinema before it made it to the big screen. Despite a few TV movies on the conspiracy, only a 2009 short film has previous focused on accused conspirator Mary Surratt. But, judging by this presentation directed by Robert Redford, it might be a story better told in a documentary.

Surratt (Robin Wright), whose son Johnny was a member of the John Wilkes Booth-led plot to kill Lincoln and other government officials, is tried by a military tribunal organized by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline). In fact, there’s little interest in determining her guilt; officials hope to draw in her fugitive son.

A young lawyer and Union war hero Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) is engaged by a forceful senator (Tom Wilkinson), disturbed by Stanton’s disregard for the Constitution, to defend this much-hated women.

That the trial is a sham enrages Aiken, turning him into a true advocate for Surratt despite the damage his actions have on his personal and professional life.

If this all sounds familiar, it is because the scenario—with other names and involving other cases—has been the fodder of movies since actors began talking. Redford’s handsome, well-acted, impeccably staged picture (written by James D. Solomon) never catches the tinder-box fever that engulfed the nation as the war came to an end and Lincoln was buried. And his choice of McAvoy to carry this passion play (and its inevitable comparison to the contemporary military trials for accused terrorists) overestimated the young actors’ skills. In the three previous films I’ve seen him in, “The Last King of Scotland,” “Atonement” and “The Last Station,” I’ve been underwhelmed; I’m at a loss as to why he’s the star of a major motion picture.

Even the flashbacks of the conspiracy in operation the night Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre add little energy or excitement to the film; they look like those reenactments done for TV crime documentaries.

What saves the film from being purely educational is the powerfully stoic, austere performance of Wright. Looking gaunt and plain, Wright does more with her eyes and body gestures than most actors can do with pages of dialogue. Central to this character is her unwavering determination to protect her guilty son and in Wright’s hands that emotional resolve turns her into a martyr of nearly Biblical proportions.

Wright has been giving intensely emotionally performances for more than 20 years, thought mostly in films few saw, including “The Playboys” (1992), “She’s So Lovely” (1997), “A Home at the End of the World” (2004), and “State of Play” (2009). She’s best known as the hippie girlfriend of “Forrest Gump” (1994) and the ex-wife of Sean Penn.

The top-notch supporting cast—Wilkinson, Kline, Colm Meaney, “Gilmore Girl” Alexis Bledel, Evan Rachel Wood and Danny Huston—keeps you thinking that something will spark the film beyond a by-the-numbers recreation of a crucial moment in American history. But it never happens.

RAWHIDE (1938)
Though Lou Gehrig, one of the most accomplished hitters in baseball history, has been one of my favorite players since boyhood and his life was chronicled in the Gary Cooper movie “The Pride of the Yankees” and later in a TV movie, I either forgot or never knew that he starred in this B Western.

Susan King, the invaluable film writer for the Los Angeles Times, mentioned the movie in a roundup of baseball-themed pictures marking Opening Day. Through the magic of Netflix, I was watching it a few days later.

Gehrig, a strapping 6-2 athlete with Hollywood good looks, seems perfect for the movies. Yet he’s required to do very little in this by-the-numbers cowboy flick, playing himself on a visit to his sister’s Montana ranch during the offseason. It’s hard not to cringe when he jokes about quitting baseball for the cowboy life knowing that he was forced to retired a little more than a year after the release of the picture. (The mysterious muscle disease that took his life in 1941, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, became known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”)

Gehrig even gets to sing (the song features the lyrics “I used to chase flies, now they’re chasing me.”) but most of the warbling is left to Smith Ballew, a popular recording artist and minor singing cowboy of the 1930s, who plays the lawyer who helps Gehrig and his sister escape the clutches of the town’s evil syndicate.

The highlight of the hour-long programmer is the comical bar fight featuring Gehrig and his cohorts tangling with the gunslingers who work for the town’s boss. At one point, Gehrig starts hurling billiard balls at the bad guys, knocking them out of the fight, as if he’s firing baseballs across the diamond.

Gehrig has a hard time keeping a straight face in the serious scenes, but isn’t half bad when he strikes a joke and flashes his wide grin. For fans of baseball history, this curio is a must-see, offering the rare opportunity to see “The Iron Horse” just being himself while wearing an enormous cowboy hat.

WIN WIN (2011)
The characters that populate writer-director Tom McCarthy’s films act and sound just like your friends and neighbors and face the same insecurities and problems. That’s not necessarily a good thing in Hollywood, where ordinary is difficult to package and market for a big opening weekend. That probably explains why his latest and most accomplished movie opened in March.

As in his first two films, “The Station Agent” (2003) and the much better “The Visitor” (2007),” McCarthy brings an odd assortment of needy people together to form a modern version of the extended family and he does it without turning them into sentimental stereotypes.

In “Win Win,” Paul Giamatti, the ultimate “regular guy” actor, plays Mike Flaherty, a small-town lawyer with a wife (Amy Ryan, Oscar-nominated for “Gone Baby Gone”) and two young daughters. But he’s worried: about the lack of clients, a ready-to-die generator in his office, pending bills and the high school wrestling team he coaches that lose every meet.

Then a meal ticket comes Mike’s way when he convinced the court to name him the conservator for Leo (Burt Young), an elderly client entering dementia. The ethically questionable deal pays him $1500 a month and since the old man hasn’t heard from his only offspring in 20 years, Mike feels safe.

Then, Kyle, Leo’s grandson (played with just the right amount of James Dean cool by Alex Shaffer) shows up and everyone’s lives are altered.

At the center of the film is this troubled teen with his distinctive dyed blonde hair and a Zen-like demeanor who wins the heart of Mike and his family, while turning out to be a championship-caliber wrestler.

The bones of the plot—a needy kid, a losing sports team inspired by an outsider, a battle between a negligent parent and a caring new family—could have easily become a shallow, teary melodrama but McCarthy avoid the traps and never allows the characters to slip into caricatures.

There aren’t any showy performances here, just actors inhabiting their characters, bringing messy truths and hard-earned hopefulness to the film.

While Giamatti and Shaffer are the most interesting and developed characters, “Win Win”—like all of McCarthy’s pictures—is filled with wonderful supporting players who all have their moments. Ryan, who was devastating as the selfish, white trash mother in “Gone Baby Gone,” plays the exact opposite here, creating a nourishing, giving mother-wife who helps turn around Kyle’s life.

Then there’s the eternally sulking Steven (Jeffrey Tambor, the veteran TV comic actor) and the clueless, optimistic Terry (Bobby Cannavale from McCarthy’s “Station Agent”) as Mike’s best friends who help him out with the wrestling team. Watching these three as they coach their colorful collection of mostly inept teen wrestlers is the definition of pitch perfect comic acting.

Easy to overlook is “Rocky” jokester Young, who gives a poignant portrayal of a feisty, but confused man who just wants to stay in his home. All these characters represent what McCarthy does best: Give voice to a community of people who need each other more than they know.

If this World War II actioner had been made in the late 1950s or early ‘60s, when stars Richard Burton and Robert Mitchum still resembled front-line soldiers, it might have been slightly interesting. By 1978, the actors look more like World War II vets than participants, offering comically bad performances as they walk through their roles with the energy of a nightlight.

Burton plays a thoughtful, discontent German sergeant (reprising a role originated by James Coburn in Sam Peckinpah’s vastly superior “Cross of Iron”) who, as the war nears its end, tries to broker a cease fire before a bloody fight over an Italian village begins. Mitchum is the laid back American colonel who ends up being Burton’s messenger after an encounter in no man’s land.

Mitchum seems amused by the war and those serving around him. In his first scene, in which he’s meeting with his commanding officer (Rod Steiger in a small role), he pulls out a foot-long cigar and lights up. It would have been a funny moment in a comedy (even Steiger’s character is startled by it) but is totally out of place in a serious war picture.

But nothing Mitchum can do or say can upstage the specter of Burton. For some reason, the uniform emphasizes the actor’s small shoulders and torso and his enormous head; he looks like a comic figure wearing a costume (remember Arte Johnson from “Laugh-In”?), ill suited to combat. Adding to his out-of-place appearance is his stern, pained expression he maintains throughout the film. Burton looks more like a man in his 70s than his actually age of 53.

Even his distinctive, commanding baritone cannot overcome the sense that you’re watching an actor going through the motions, barely cognitive of the role he’s playing. Meanwhile, Mitchum seems to be enjoying the scenery and reciting the cliché-riddled lines.

Director Andrew V. McLaglen (“Shenandoah,” “Chisum”) doesn’t do much to keep this mostly uneventful story moving and fails completely to create any sense of tension or doom as soldiers prepare to engage each other in battle.

“Breakthrough” may not be the worst war picture ever made, but it may be the most disappointing considering it stars two of the finest actors of the postwar era. Just the year before, Burton had given an excellent performance in the film adaptation of “Equus,” while Mitchum, three years earlier, delivered one of his most memorable performances as Philip Marlow in “Farewell, My Lovely.”

I trust that Burton and Mitchum drank themselves to sleep each night after the shoot and had a great time exchanging “war” stories. As for watching the resulting movie, I would not advise doing it sober.

When I first saw this movie, I was 19 and on a date. My mind was clearly on other matters, because I left the theater unimpressed.

I’ve seen “Cuckoo’s Nest” a few times since and now recognize it as an American classic, among the 100 best pictures in history. A recent viewing, after re-reading Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, increased my appreciation of the film, especially the screenplay by Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben.

The back story on how the book became a movie would make for an interesting film itself. Kirk Douglas bought the rights to the novel—based on Kesey’s work as a volunteer at a veteran’s hospital--before it was published and eventually had writer Dale Wasserman turn it into a play. The actor starred in the 1963-64 Broadway production, which also featured Gene Wilder and Ed Ames. A few years later, on a goodwill trip to Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, Douglas meet a young director and was impressed enough to offer him a chance to direct the film version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Douglas promised to send him a copy of the play.

The director, Milos Forman, never received the book (Communist censors had confiscated it) and assumed the famous actor was all talk. But when Douglas’ son Michael took up the cause to get the film made in the 1970s, he offered it to Forman, now living in America.

Douglas chose Jack Nicholson for the role of R.P. McMurphy, a seemingly untamable rebel stuck in an institute where rules and discipline dictate life, after seeing his performance as the foul-mouthed Navy tough guy in “The Last Detail.”

Forman went with unknowns for the rest of the roles, including eventual best actress winner Louise Fletcher as the unrelenting Nurse Ratched and Will Sampson, a 6-5 Creek Indian discovered by a Portland car dealer.

Playing Chief Bromden, a patient who pretends to be deaf and dumb while constantly sweeping the floors, Sampson brings this unforgettable character to life and went on to play Indian roles in two dozen movies and TV productions until his death at 53 during lung-heart transplant surgery. Also playing patients were a very young Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, William Redfield and, as the stuttering Billy Bibbit, Brad Dourif.

The Chief narrates the book, using his apparent deafness as a cover to hear conversations he otherwise would never be privy to. Also, in the novel, it is the Chief’s depiction of the Combine and the Fog, imaginary elements of the vast machinery utilized by Nurse Ratched and her staff to control the patients, which transforms the book more than just a collection of adventures inside the nuthouse.

Goldman and Hauben brilliantly strip away the interior narrative of the book, making it McMurphy’s story rather than the Chief’s, without losing the theme of society’s crushing effect on individualism. Instead of the Chief being a prominent character from the start, he slowly emerges as an important ally of McMurphy and, ultimately, his protector. (The change greatly displeased Kesey, who also wasn’t happy with the casting of Nicholson, preferring Gene Hackman for McMurphy.)

What connects with audiences is McMurphy’s sanity; he’s an unruly troublemaker, but there’s nothing wrong with his mental state. He finagles his way into the facility hoping it will be an easier ride than the work farm he was confided to. At first, he’s quite pleased with himself, as he takes over the place, turning it into a virtual gambling parlor and then leading the inmates on a renegade fishing trip. But little does he know what fate has in store for him.

The screenwriters took a great novel, disassembled it and put it back together for the cinema in a way that utilizes the book’s best ideas, its heartbreaking moments and singular characters while creating their own work of art.

About halfway through this Danish drama that won the 2010 Oscar for foreign-language film I was baffled as to why anyone thought it worthy of any honor. Then, what appeared to be a rather ordinary tale of a pair of teenage boys with family and emotional issues, turns into a thought-provoking, intricately plotted thesis on the insidious nature of violence and how we confront its perpetrators.

This deceptively straight-forward story opens in an African refugee camp where Anton, a Danish physician (Mikael Persbrandt, looking like and with the calm resolve of a young Max von Sydow) is attending to the sick and injured, including a pregnant girl whose stomach has been cut open by the henchmen of a ruthless strongman for pure sport.

Back in Denmark, he attempts to teach him son, a regular victim of the school bully and his new friend, who just lost his mother to cancer, that responding to violence with more violence is a hopeless, losing battle.

In the boys’ black-and-white world, the father’s intellectualizing is lost and they seek revenge, first on the bully and then on an angry auto mechanic who gets into it with the doctor.

Christian (a memorably intense William Jøhnk Nielsen) is a very troubled boy who blames his father for his mother’s death and, in confused desperation, strikes out against the cruel world, bringing the more naïve Elias (Markus Rygaard) into his schemes. On the surface, Elias seems to be adjusting to the separation of his parents—his mother is also a doctor—better than they are, but nothing in this film stops at the surface. The story goes back and forth between Africa and Denmark as it depicts both children and adults relying on violence to vent their anger and express frustrations.

Director Susanne Bier and writer Anders Thomas Jensen, whose “After the Wedding” (2006) also received a foreign film Oscar nomination, display a steady hand as the film steadily becomes more emotionally involving and its issues move to the forefront. Yet Bier’s camera refuses to turn away from the violence or its devastating aftermath, whether it’s in a poor African village or on the playground of a suburban European city.

I can’t offer an opinion as to whether “In a Better World” deserved the Oscar, having not seen any of the other nominees (don’t get me started on why the year’s foreign film winner isn’t released in the U.S. until the following April), but I’m certain it will rank among the best films of 2011.

Friday, April 1, 2011

March 2011

There’s no question that Elizabeth Taylor’s greatest performance was playing herself. By age 40, she was all but retired from the movie business, relegating her career to a minor part of a life of ever-changing husbands, highly publicized addictions and illnesses and fundraising for social issues. But, first and foremost, she was Elizabeth Taylor, the celebrity of celebrities and the final torchbearer of Hollywood’s studio-era glamour. The fire went out March 23, when she died at age 79.

Watching her early films, it’s obvious that she was more than a pretty little girl; the camera adored her and she possessed the ability to appear completely relaxed and naturally animated on screen. Even in her few minutes in “Jane Eyre” (1944), as a fellow orphan who befriends young Jane and pays the ultimate price for giving her food, Taylor is unforgettable. That same year she became a star for her role as the feisty, horse-loving pre-teen in “National Velvet.” She was 12.

By age 17, she gave her first great performance (though the film wasn’t released until two years later) as Angela Vickers, a head-strong society girl who sets her sights on an easily manipulated factory worker (Montgomery Clift), igniting a series of tragic events in George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun” (1951). The screen-filling close-up of Taylor and Clift in a long, passionate kiss in many ways marked mainstream Hollywood’s entry into adult sexuality.

Though she utilized her sensuality as the hot-blooded Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1958) and as the high-class call girl in “Butterfield 8” (1960)---both featuring substantial screen time for Taylor’s form-fitting slips---some of her best work was done in roles in which her looks were secondary.

Though rarely mentioned among her best performances, she’s superb as the wife of an alcoholic writer (Van Johnson) in “The Last Time I Saw Paris” (1954). She evolves from a carefree party girl to a responsible mother and wife struggling to understand her husband’s demons.

The more times I watch “Giant” (1956) the more I’m impressed with Taylor’s quiet, unpretentious portrayal of Leslie Benedict, who goes from a Texas trophy wife to an independent woman and voice for ethnic equality. As a reflection of 20th Century America, few films can match the sweep of “Giant” and at the moral center of the film is Taylor’s Mrs. Benedict.

The infamous extravagance and love affair of “Cleopatra” (1963) forever changed Taylor from a movie star to a gossip-column celebrity, with Richard Burton at her side. But she managed to deliver one last great performance, as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966).

As the foul-mouthed bitch of a wife to an introverted college professor, Taylor dives head first into this jolting, uncomfortable examination of the state of marriage and the games we play to disguise our true selves. This seemingly proper, intellectual couple (she’s the daughter of the university’s president) have invited a newly hired professor and his young wife to dinner. They have no idea what they’ve walked into. This very American couple (George and Martha) pick this evening, as the stunned innocents look on, to unmask the hypocrisy and lies of their marriage, tearing down each other neurosis by neurosis.

First-time film director Mike Nichols transfers Edward Albee’s landmark play nearly directly to the screen (censors required the language to be cleaned up a bit) as these four actors, trapped in this house and their marriages, destroy one another in a long night’s journey of twisted game playing and alcohol-fueled amateur psychoanalysis. With “Virginia Woolf,” Albee pulled the curtain back on the “perfect” world of the 1950s and sent us crashing into the ‘60s.

Martha includes a bit of a decaying Maggie the Cat and a bit of the royal personage and ruthlessness of Cleopatra, but Taylor’s performance was a revelation from this one-time child woman; a loud, blood-curling, spit-spewing film-long rant of the like rarely seen on American screens. That she and Burton were known as a volatile couple in real life just added to the potency of the picture and earned her a well-deserved second best-actress Oscar (as opposed to the less-than-impressive winning role in “Butterfield 8”).

This should have been the launching point for the rest of Taylor’s acting career—she was just 34---but in just a few years after this second Oscar-winning performance she was no longer a major actress.

Her star still was bright in 1967-68 with three interesting performances as unhappy, often unpleasant women, including the discontent wife of a closeted gay man (Marlon Brando) in “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967), another wife with a roving eye, co-starring with Burton in “The Comedians” (1967), and as a brazen, one-time prostitute who pretends to be an emotionally disturbed woman’s mother in “Secret Ceremony” (1968). Taylor also played the wild, untamable Kate opposite Burton in Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967).

Then a series of strange, forgettable pictures---“The Only Game in Town” (1970), “X, Y & Zee” (1972), “Hammersmith Is Out” (1972), “Ash Wednesday”
(1973)---marginalized her acting career. Looking back, it is almost as if she was trying too hard to escape the confines of mainstream Hollywood that had defined her career. Quickly she lost interest and became a part-time actress, taking small roles in little-seen pictures.

Why wasn’t she in “Nashville” or “The Day of the Locust,” or “Murder on the Orient Express” or played any number of Anne Bancroft, Joanne Woodward or Geraldine Page roles? Instead, by the mid-70s, she was a punch line (remember John Belushi’s imitation?) and, like Brando and Welles, a bloated exaggeration of decaying glamour. Yet, despite the disappointment of her post-40 career, from 1951 to 1968 she delivered on the promise of her childhood, becoming a dominating screen presence and one of the industry’s biggest stars.

The last act of her life as a fragile, soft-spoken salesperson for perfume, the Betty Ford Center, Michael Jackson’s innocence and the rights of AIDs patients defined her for a generation (or two) that had never seen her in a movie. Too bad, because beyond being an occasionally amazing actress, she kept the Golden Era of Hollywood alive long after the shimmering silver screen became colorized and the stars stopped wearing tuxes and tiaras.

Two years ago I would have responded in a completely different way to this high-profile documentary on the state of America’s public education system.

Since then I’ve been immersed in education issues as a way-too-old student, observing high school teachers and finally teaching on my own in the process of earning my teaching credential. And though I’ve seen only a small fraction of the system compared to actual working teachers, I’ve learned enough to know that there are no simple answers to the problems in public education.

But even before beginning my teaching studies, I think I would have detected the holes and half-baked arguments filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (Oscar-winner for “An Inconvenient Truth”) and co-writer Billy Kimball put forth in their attempt to uncover the reasons behind the apparent failure of schools over the past 30 years. I write “apparent” because by many measures, including SAT scores, students are learning just as well as they did in 1980. The average score on the verbal section of the SAT in 1980 was 502, in 1990 it was 499 and in 2008 it was 501. In math, the average in 1980 was 492, which rose to 500 in 1990 and 515 in 2008. What has frightened the politicians is that the rest of the world has caught up (and surpassed) U.S. students in that period.

Guggenheim focuses on four minority grade school students, children of concerned, involved parents attempting to enroll them in exclusive charter schools because they are headed toward low performing middle and high schools. Though the filmmaker spreads the blame around (with little evidence) he paints teachers’ unions as the primary villains and impediments to education reforms. Yet, with the same breath, he talks sarcastically about 40 years of reforms that have only made the system worse.

No one can deny that some of the stances held by the union are simply ridiculous---there’s no reason why poorly performing teachers shouldn’t be fired just like any other incompetent worker---but as satisfying as it would be to fire the handful of bad teachers in every school, it’s not going to do much to improve a system that is broken in so many ways. Guggenheim found one researcher who claims that if the worst teachers were replace by average teachers, students’ learning would equal the best in the world. Anyone who believes that unscientific pipe dream hasn’t been in a classroom in awhile.

Guggenheim doesn’t mention a word about the parents who take no role in their children’s education (for a multitude of reasons, some understandable) and fail to provide incentive or encouragement for these students to do well.

Nor does he ever mention that by most measures, charter schools, even though they rarely admit English Language Learners or disable students, have failed to deliver any better results than traditional schools.

The filmmaker gives plenty of positive screen time to controversial reformer Michelle Rhee, the former superintendent of Washington, D.C., schools. Rhee, like so many of the documentary’s experts, offers no concrete solutions, but is certain that if it wasn’t for the union, real changes could be made. It will be interesting to see the improvement schools make in the states now in the process of eliminating teachers’ tenure.

My favorite “fact” offered in support of the theory that teachers are at the root of educational problems is that many African-American boys go from being “B” students to “D” students from age 10 to age 12. I don’t need to be a parent or child psychologist to recognize the difference between age 10 and 12 and how that might affect interest in school. But in the paradigm created by education reformers, students aren’t responsible for either their success or their failure.

Guggenheim concludes the documentary with a dramatic sequence in which these minority students (plus a white student from Silicon Valley) attend lotteries to gain admission to charter schools. These are all smart, hard-working students who will do well in any educational setting with the help of their supportive, outspoken parents. But instead the scenes are presented as the last chance for a decent education and a tragedy for those left out.

Like most of “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” simplified, emotional pleas for justice (how can you resist these cute, sincere students) crowd out any rational, measured accounting of the problem. The filmmakers scored the headlines and op-ed commentaries they sought, without answering a single question.

The real tragedy is that despite all the rhetoric of the past decade, the majority of parents still show little interest in the quality of their child’s school or teachers. They should be shouting at the top of their voices at overpaid boards of education, asking why students often don’t have a textbook of their own, go weeks without ever working on the handful of school computers, have no librarian to guide them and spend way too much time in the classroom preparing for meaningless standardized tests. Even the most inspirational teachers would struggle to overcome these shortcomings. Maybe Guggenheim will address these issues in “Waiting for ‘Superman’, Part II.”

I’ve always been fascinated by films that explore the fuzzy line between art and life, starting with the archetype, Federico Fellini’s “8 ½.” Among my personal favorites dealing with this topic include Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz,” Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show” and Charlie Kaufman’s “ Synecdoche, New York.” A fascinating, mysterious addition to this subgenre is this French/Italian film by acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami.

The peerless Juliette Binoche stars as a Tuscany gallery owner with a young son who arranges to meet an English writer (William Shimell) in town promoting his new book about the relative value of an original and a copy. His argument is that all artwork is essentially a copy, just as all people are copies of their parents.

The pair, who seems to have never met, ends up spending the day together, drifting from a gallery to a coffee shop (where a very outspoken older Italian woman weighs in on marriage and men) to a wedding celebration.

As the day progresses, Binoche’s Elle becomes more and more upset at James, projecting her anger she has for her absent husband (whose characteristics oddly resemble James). When he starts playing along, identities become confused and “acting” and “art” become intertwined with real life. Of course, the filmmaker, best known for “Taste of Cherry” (1997) and “The Wind Will Carry Us” (1999), even as he comments on how art influences our lives, is manipulating an art form to make his point.

It’s the kind of film that asks---or inspires---more questions than it even attempts to answer. What does it really mean to create something original? And why is that so highly valued? What makes art important and who decides? And why is what we do in life judged so differently than the art we create? Do we imitate art or vice versa?

Shimell, who isn’t a professional actor, but a leading British opera singer, occasionally offers stilted, clumsy line readings, but in a way that works for his character as James attempt to “act” as if he’s someone else or another version of himself. And Shimell certainly shows an understanding of the attitude and carriage of a man who thinks highly of himself.

Binoche gives yet another in her never ending string of astonishing performances, leaving doubt as to whether Elle is insane, obsessed or just a disappointed wife. While she regularly plays smart, articulate women, the actress is able to find the small, often barely noticeable flaw that makes each character unique. Her Elle is part flirt, part intellectual, part insecure little girl as she grows more mysterious, more elusive as the film goes on. It’s rarely a compliment to say that a movie is more confusing as it ends than it was in the beginning, but in the case of “Certified Copy” it’s exactly what’s called for.

It’s rare I see anything on television worth recommending but this British miniseries from the screenwriter of “Gosford Park” is a must-see for Anglophiles or anyone who enjoys well-written drama.

Julian Fellowes has captured a world that is near extinction as the privileged Crawley family finds itself close to getting tossed out of its centuries-old estate after the Titanic goes down. Among the dead is the male heir to the family’s title and riches who was engaged to the Earl of Grantham’s eldest daughter. Without the heir marrying one of the Earl’s daughters (as he has no son), the daughters and their families will suddenly find themselves commoners when their father dies, losing everything previous generations of Crawleys have worked for.

Though it seems idiotic that only sons could inherit the family fortune, in this drama it is the perfect metaphor for what was going on in British society. Women, including the Earl’s daughters, are starting to show their independence, thinking about careers and politics along with husbands and children.

Fellowes fashions the drama as an “Upstairs, Downstairs” homage, with Mr. Carson (the regal Jim Carter) running a large staff with its own share of infighting and controversy, mostly surrounding the Earl’s new valet Bates (Brendan Coyle).

Veteran British TV actor Hugh Bonneville (he played the young John Bayley opposite Kate Winslet in “Iris”) and Elizabeth McGovern (her most challenging role since her breakthrough at age 19 in “Ordinary People”) are the Earl and Countess of Grantham, parents to three very different unmarried daughters who face uncertain futures. Hovering over the proceedings is the Earl’s mother, the highly opinionated Dowager Countess perfectly played by Dame Maggie Smith, at 76 still the most entertaining actress on the face of the earth. She’s the guardian of the family legacy and makes herself an old-fashioned bore when the new heir---scandalously, a lowly lawyer!---joins the family’s inner circle. Like most miniseries, there are a dozen subplots going on at once and Fellowes has seamlessly woven the threads of this plot together.

And if you think this is all tea pots and crumpets, in one important subplot, a visiting Turkish diplomat drops dead while visiting a young lady’s bedroom.

It’s the clash of the old world and the coming new one as World War I approaches and the earth shattering changes of the 20th Century begin to escalate. Part two of the series will arrive on these shores later this year, so you have plenty of time to catch up with this four-part drama that may be derivative, but highly entertaining.

THE STRIP (1951)
Stanley Crouch, essayist and music critic, succinctly described one of life’s biggest frustrations when he wrote: ‘‘Somebody before us always got a little-bit-bigger piece of something we dreamed about, and someone coming after us is going to get a fatter portion of something we want ourselves.’’

I would have loved to have tasted a bit of the nightclub scene of the late 1940s or early ‘50s, be it in New York or Los Angeles. While the club scene in Manhattan is more legendary (if only for the jazz clubs of 52nd Street), L.A.’s Sunset Strip was just as star-studded, with clubs such as Ciro’s, Café Trocadero, Player’s and La Rue. Serving as the playground for Hollywood royalty and the music industry, legendary entertainers were both on stage and sitting at the next table.

It was the end of an era when the best entertainers in the world performed in cozy clubs and ballroom-style restaurants, before VIP rooms and exclusive resorts priced the middle class out of this world. A shoe salesman and his wife could land a table next to Bogey and Bacall and for the price of a meal and drinks watch Nat King Cole or Tony Bennett perform. This scene was equally democratic when the rockers replaced the crooners, until someone figured out that you could charge $15 (now $80) and pack 10,000 paying customers into an arena.

This pedestrian, B-level crime picture takes place during those glory days of the Strip, with Mickey Rooney playing a vet just out of the military psych ward who heads to L.A. to make it as a drummer.

Improbably, he lands a gig with Louis Armstrong’s All Star band (sort of like walking into a contemporary club and ending up as Paul McCartney’s drummer). But not before he has hooked up with a local mobster (James Craig), working for him as a bookie.

Rooney’s Stanley tries to change his ways when he meets Jane, a cute cigarette girl/dancer obsessed with becoming a movie star. But the plot and characters dim compared to the presence of Armstrong and his band, which includes his longtime trombone partner Jack Teagarden and piano legend Earl “Fatha” Hines. Satchmo, singing and playing, is mesmerizing, giving his best musical performance on film, at least that I’ve seen.

Otherwise, the film offers some interesting shots of Hollywood in the ‘40s (it’s amazing how undeveloped Sunset Boulevard was back then), the always entertaining William Demarest as the club owner who gives Stanley his break and the smooth vocal stylings of Vic Damone.

Rooney, even at age 31, seems too much like a kid to believe as a jazz drummer or mobster’s associate or a legitimate suitor to the sexy, ambitious Jane (Sally Forrest). She shows plenty of screen presence, but other than her starring role as a tennis protégé in Ida Lupino’s “Hard, Fast and Beautiful” (1951), this one-time dancer spent most of her career in small TV roles.

What’s most disappointing about “The Strip” is that they don’t show one real L.A. nightclub exterior. Few films ever did and I’ve never understood why; what could be better publicity for the clubs? Instead, they show the cliché montage of neon signs displaying the clubs’ names.

99 RIVER STREET (1953)
I’m convinced that low-budget crime pictures of the 1940s and ‘50s offer more insight into the American character than any film genre. These movies typically depict regular American men (nearly exclusively), disappointed in life, tempted by alluring women and the easy money of crime who inevitably resort to violence, resulting in either their downfall or a type of redemption. This little gem, directed by Phil Karlson, among the masters of the genre, even includes a female character who experiences changes.

John Payne, who starred in another Karlson crime classic “Kansas City Confidential,” plays Ernie, a retired boxer whose marriage to a disappointed gold digger (Peggie Castle) is on the rocks even before he spots her kissing another guy (Brad Dexter). Unbeknownst to Ernie, his wife and this small-time thief are attempting to unload stolen diamonds and skip town. Meanwhile, Ernie’s gal pal Linda (Evelyn Keyes) comes to him in a panic, saying she’s killed a Broadway producer after he came on to her during an audition.

Before Ernie knows what hit him, the cops are after him for assault and murder. He keeps getting the short end of the stick as circumstances quickly go from bad to worse, dogged down every dark alley he encounters.

Karlson and screenwriters Robert Smith and George Zuckerman keep the plot twists coming, while smoothly integrating three distinct story arcs.

The beefy, serious Payne was never mistaken for a great actor, but he has an intensity and vulnerability that serves him well in these types of roles. His most famous role, as the boyfriend in “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), shows him at his blandest.

Keyes, famously married to directors John Huston and Charles Vidor and then jazz musician Artie Shaw, is exceptional in the scenes where she’s “in character” for her Broadway play and then later when she attempt to allure the thief. Keyes’ was an underrated actress of the era who was also memorable in “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (1941), “Ladies in Retirement” (1941), “Johnny O’Clock” (1944) and “The Prowler” (1951). She remains best known for playing Scarlett’s younger sister in “Gone With the Wind” (1939).

After years of working in B-movies, including “The Phenix City Story” (1955) and “The Brothers Rico” (1957), Karlson directed an Elvis flick, “Kid Galahad” (1962) and a Matt Helm (Dean Martin) actioner, “The Silencers” (1966), before making the “Willard” sequel “Ben” (1972) and the surprising box-office hit “Walking Tall” (1973). It’s almost as if he morphed into a different filmmaker after the 1950s.

CYRUS (2010)
The scenario of this offbeat film sounds like a canceled television sitcom, but it turns out to be a serious study of two unstable men and the woman they love.

John C. Reilly, one of the best and least appreciated actors in Hollywood, plays John, a whinny, immature 40something divorcé whose ex-wife (Catherine Keener) continues to be his best (only?) friend. He reluctantly attends party with her and her fiancé and displays the social skills of a ten-year-old. Yet he hooks up with the most attractive woman in the place (just in case you forgot it was a movie), the effervescent, down to earth Molly (Marisa Tomei). Within days, the relationship escalates into serious status---and then he meets Cyrus (Jonah Hill).

The husky, intense, 21-year-old son of Molly, not only lives with his mother but they have an uncomfortably close relationship, excessively reliant for anyone over the age of 12. In other words, his maturity level is about the same as John’s.

In front of his mother, he seems to be quite accepting of John, but, in fact, he’s doing his best to undermine their relationship. It’s almost like an extended, darker episode of “Seinfeld”: I can imagine George in Reilly’s role, determined to unmask Cyrus’ true intentions. (In fact, didn’t Tomei play George’s potential girlfriend in an episode?).

The writing/directing team of Jay and Mark Duplass---clearly influenced by the sensibilities of the Coen brothers (isn’t everyone; see below)---strike a nice balance between the quirky and the mundane as they find humor in uncomfortable situations. At times, the story becomes a bit repetitive and as visual filmmakers the brothers have a long way to go, but these two child-like men, goofily personified by Reilly and Hill, make “Cyrus” a one-of-a-kind romance.

In an odd reversal, Chinese director Zhang Yimou has remade, in a manner, an American film, “Blood Simple.” This 1985 neo-noir, the first feature made by Joel and Ethan Coen, tells a complex tale of back-stabbing and shifting loyalties as a wife and husband take turns in plotting the murder of the other. The Coens’ sparkling, Dashiell Hammett-like dialogue, first rate performances (especially Frances McDormand and M. Emmit Walsh) and Barry Sonnenfeld’s evocative camera work turned this little-seen picture into a brilliant opening salvo in the brothers’ iconoclastic careers.

Zhang’s version turns up the comedy, featuring exaggerated almost clown-like characters as he uses the duplicitous plot to assail the government of China. The visuals, like in all of Zhang’s films, are stunning, with cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao (Oscar nominated for “House of Flying Daggers”) turning the richly colored costumes and the surreal browns and reds of the rolling hills into an exotic fairytale atmosphere.

Yet for all its beauty, locating all the action in this small, rural outpost, where a rich man and his young wife opera a noodle shop and employ a handful of oddballs, becomes tedious. No one ever visits the restaurant; in fact, the only visitors to this remote compound are the police after they hear rumors of a cannon being fired. That’s about as interesting as this picture gets.

The story doesn’t have half the snap or energy of the original and after the husband is killed, the movie sinks into loud, annoying bickering among those left to point fingers and make off with his riches.

I’ve been critical of Zhang for wasting his talents on superhero martial arts epics (“Hero” “House of Flying Daggers”) but at least you’ll never fall asleep during those actioners. I won’t guarantee that for “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop.” In fact, the title is the only clever thing about it.