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.


Dana King said...

The complaint you noted in WAITING FOR SUPERMAN seems to be the key in too many policy debates today. Whoever is speaking picks a side, then picks the "facts" to suit the argument. It the actual facts don;t buttress the point, flexibility is permitted. It's gettijg scary.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen Master piece theater?

Anonymous said...

yes. I like the articles.