Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

When you hear people talk about Elizabeth Taylor, there's one expression that is always brought up: movie star. No one better quantifies the role of American movie star than Taylor. Of course, 'Liz' Taylor was not an official American, herself, being born in Hampstead, London, but it's her breathtaking ability to captivate an entire nation both on and off the screen that has established Taylor as one of the greatest movie stars in American cinematic history. Now, when you see people like Ashton Kutcher and Megan Fox being labeled "movie stars" these days, it's hard to dispute how much the term has been depreciated after decades of watered down talent reaching the silver screen. There are very few true movie stars left, at least not in the vein of old school Hollywood, where slapping a name like John Wayne or Carol Lombard was just enough to send the audience screaming for tickets. Taylor was one of the last great ones, bridging the gap between the classical star and the modern day, publicity fueled celebrity. But all the while, she still managed to be one of the most devout, hard-working screen actresses for over six decades, producing several mesmerizing performances, while also taking hand in some of the most publicized Hollywood scandals of her time.

Like many larger-than-life stars of the past, the more eccentric elements of her life were what captured the minds of most people my age when they heard the name Elizabeth Taylor. They knew a lot of her eight marriages (including twice to Richard Burton), her several near-death experiences, and her reputation for being a difficult personality with the higher-ups at the movie studios. Her tumultuous relationship with English actor Richard Burton spanned for over fifteen years, and their level of public overexposure over the course of that time would put "Brangelina" to shame. Their affair propelled the careers of many a gossip columnist and spurned several films in which they starred together (most of them forgettable, but one of them an all-time classic - but we'll get to that soon enough). Then, of course, there is the tale of Cleopatra - the film in which she became the first screen star to gain a $1 million salary - a project that Taylor spear-headed where the budget became overblown and became one of the biggest studio flops of the Twentieth Century. Sure enough, the film is more remembered for establishing the beginning of the 'Liz & Dick era' (she met Burton on the set - he playing Marc Antony). Now, entire books have been written about Taylor's off screen fiascos, as well as her relationships with tormented stars Montgomery Clift and Michael Jackson, but I'd like to take several moments to discuss where she produced her greatest work, in movies.

Taylor alongside Monty Clift in A Place In the Sun. Their first of many together.

Taylor began her career as a child actor, starring in such films as National Velvet and the 1949 version of Little Women. Her star rose as she starred along Spencer Tracy in the classic comedy Father of the Bride and it's sequel one year later, Father's Little Dividend. Very early, Taylor showed a charm and a natural quality in front of the camera, performing effortlessly across from seasoned movie actors and standing strong. But it wasn't until George Stevens' 1951 film A Place In The Sun (which was released when Taylor was all but nineteen years old), that Taylor established herself as true, dominant film persona. Playing opposite Montgomery Clift (who she'd become great friends with), Taylor steps throughout the film, radiating sensuality and heart, captivating audiences with her great beauty, but also showing herself to be a matter-of-factual adult performer, an owner of the thoughts and minds of American viewers.

Throughout the 50's, she starred in many films including another George Stevens epic, Giant, alongside fellow movie legends Rock Hudson and James Dean in 1956. A year later, she was nominated for her first Academy Award for Raintree County, a Civil War drama where she played a Southern woman who captures the heart of a poet and teacher (played by Clift). In 1958, she starred alongside an up-and-coming Paul Newman in the film version of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She received her second Oscar nomination for playing the sensual, but frustrated wife of an injured football All-American. It was a strict cementation of Taylor as the most glowing beauty in the movies, but was also a wonderfully controlled performance (in fact, Taylor and Newman's honest work in this film almost make up for the nearly unforgivable white-washing of Williams' controversial play). The very next year, she starred in another Tennessee Williams adaptation, Suddenly, Last Summer. She received her third (consecutive) Oscar nomination for playing the tormented young woman at the heart of this daunting tale, playing opposite of Katherine Hepburn and (once again) Montgomery Clift.

Taylor's sensuality was on full display throughout Suddenly, Last Summer.

One year later, Taylor finally won her first Oscar for playing the model/call-girl/man trap at the heart of Daniel Mann's Butterfield 8. What came after, was the infamous fiasco of Cleopatra. The film's disappointing performance at the box office did little to sully her stardom, particularly since it was the beginning of the public obsession of 'Liz & Dick'. They starred in The V.I.P.s and then The Sandpipers before joining together to star in the film version of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The powerful couple fought hard to get the meaty roles of George and Martha, and then later were able to convince skeptical studio head Jack Warner to hire theater-savvy Mike Nichols to direct (despite him never directing a film before). Combining the famed stories surrounding Virginia Woolf's Broadway run with Taylor and Burton's overt fame, the film's production began a buzz. And when the film challenged the Production Code with its brash language, Taylor and Burton pushed Warner to push it forward, and even threaten to release it without the seal. They won that battle, winning a seal, while leaving the destruction of the Production Code in its wake.

Liz & Dick in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The performances within Nichols' vision of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are something to wonder at. Keeping almost all of Albee's script intact, Taylor and Burton flourished while using their palpitating chemistry to construct a heartbreaking portrait of a fraying, middle-aged marriage. Playing a woman twenty years older than she was at the time, Taylor gained thirty pounds and wore a flustered, gray wig. But it was her performance, filled with crushed dreams and scowling anger, that disposed of any doubt that Taylor really became Martha. It's a virtuoso work, completely disposing of Taylor's previous image of only playing glorious beauties, capturing Martha without judgment, but still keeping the abrasive acidity at the forefront. Taylor won her much-deserved second Oscar for her performance, and it has gone on to be considered, generally, the star's greatest work (and on several occasions she has said that it was her favorite film that she'd worked on).

After that, Taylor's personal life outweighed almost all she did in films. Not that she didn't work. In 1980, she starred in the Agatha Christie adaptation, The Mirror Crack'd alongside Maggie Smith, and she even had a short stint on the television soap opera, All My Children. But between her second Oscar and today, people usually discussed her in respect to her relationships. She divorced Burton, than remarried him a year later, only to get another divorce months after that. She was married (and divorced) twice more after that, but has often stated that Burton was the true love of her life. The final years of Liz Taylor were marked by illness, staying out of the limelight due to serious heart conditions. On this morning, she finally passed away from heart failure. So, today, we toast to a beautiful woman and a tremendously talented actress. More than anything, though, we close the door on one of the most captivating lives in American history. We say goodbye to a true movie star.

This is one of my favorite clips of Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. I apologize for the subtitles. Other than that, the video quality's quite good. Here it is:

Friday, March 18, 2011

Cedar Rapids (***1/2)

Directed by Miguel Arteta


In Cedar Rapids, we are given a group of insurance rep misfits that couldn't be any more buffoonish, yet couldn't be any more sincere. There's a certain level of warmth within the people we meet in this wonderful little comedy that make them endearing, even when they're making lewd sex jokes, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and taking a seemingly wholesome insurance convention and turning it into a smorgasbord of excess. That this occasionally-rambunctious group of miscreants can reach into the audience and develop a seminal wisdom is a revelation I've rarely witnessed in a movie theater.

The film is focused on Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a Midwestern, forty-something-year-old man who works as an insurance agent at the Brown Valley Insurance Firm that is highly renowned for winning the coveted Two Diamonds award for excellence three years in a row. He lives in a world of befuddling innocence, and his only guilty pleasure is a weekly sex rendezvous with his former grade school teacher, Mrs. V (Sigourney Weaver). After his successful co-worker, Roger (Thomas Lennon), dies in a rather embarrassing fashion, Tim's boss (Stephen Root) picks him to represent the firm at the insurance convention in Cedar Rapids and bring home the Two Diamonds award for the fourth straight year. Tim's not sure if he's ready for this kind of job, but when he gets onto the plane headed for Iowa, he can't hold back his excitement.

When Tim arrives, he befriends three convention veterans. The first one is Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), a soft spoken, eloquent teddy bear of a man who tells jokes that are as unfunny as he is black. Shortly after, he meets Dean "Dean-zy" Zeigler (John C. Reilly), a sharp-tongued, hard drinking troublemaker who quickly pounces on Tim's impishness and defeats all of his inhibitions in only two nights. Lastly, Tim meets Joan (Anne Heche), a married woman who uses the Cedar Rapids convention to free herself from her burdensome family. I'm sure that Joan looks at this weekend as the annual highlight of her sex life, tracking down various opportunities to further forget the suburban life that has forced her into the insurance lifestyle to begin with.

At first, Tim is hesitant to their devilish charms, but when Dean tips Tim off about a petition trying to strip Brown Valley of their Two Diamonds awards, Tim quickly realizes that these three are the only people he has on his side. The ultra-conservative convention is run by Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), a polished but self-righteous man who insists that God be at the forefront of all insurance companies, but his congenial appearance a much more sinister truth. There's nothing more Dean would like to do than expose Orin and his moral hypocrisy, and when Tim realizes the false virtue of the entire event, he decides to join him. As Tim slowly gets sucked out of his comfort zone, he finally begins to comprehend his self-worth, and Cedar Rapids becomes the greatest ever coming-of-age tale about a man in his forties.

When we look at our cast a protagonists, we have an alcoholic, a television connoisseur, an adulteress, and a man who frequently has sex with a woman thirty years older than him. That these characters coexist is a wonder on its own. That screenwriter Phil Johnston is able to take these people and make them an empathetic, Midwestern Wild Bunch is quite the achievement. This is Tim Lippe's story, but it's their partnership that really sets Cedar Rapids apart from other low-brow comedies of this ilk. We really believe that these people care about each other, that there's a real bond here. That Heche and Reilly play their parts without judgment helps a lot, as Joan and Dean are rather up front with their flaws and their sins, never allowing themselves to be one-note or empty.

The film was directed by Miguel Arteta, of The Good Girl and more recently, Youth In Revolt. We can see early that he has a gift within comedic films, not because of how funny they are (though they are that), but because of his attention to his characters. He never settles for the easy joke; and in the case of most of his films, it would be pretty easy to take a character like Tim Lippe or Dean Zeigler and laugh at him. But Arteta really cares about these people, and it shows. It helps to have some wonderful performances. Helms, always a talented supporting player in comedies like The Hangover and the TV series "The Office", really holds his own as a lead. He plays Tim with such brilliant naivete, we really believe him when he gives Mrs. V a promise ring for, you know, whatever happens. The film is also filled with wonderful small moments and minor characters, particularly a young prostitute named Bree (Alia Shawkat) who sways Tim with her charm and her crack pipe.

They always say that no good films come out in the first four months of the year. They say that because, for the most part, it's true. But Cedar Rapids - an independent film that is still stuck in limited release - is a gem among cobblestones, a truly great comedy filled with romance, fight scenes, and more than one reference to the HBO program, "The Wire". I'll admit that I'm a sucker for low-brow comedies with heart (when they're done well), but I do feel like Cedar Rapids was the first great film of 2011, even if it probably won't develop that reputation. But that's fine, the Tim Lippe's of the world never get the credit they deserve.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (**)

Produced, Written and Directed by George Nolfi


Somewhere within
The Adjustment Bureau is a very compelling romance, and even better, a wonderful farce. Furthermore, the film stirs serious moral questions about predestination and existentialism. These three aspects (the romance, the farce, the existentialism) are the most interesting parts of the film, but it never really divulges into any of the three too far or deep. They're left twisting in the wind while we're sucked into a more generic plot line involving a cat-and-mouse chase between chess pieces and the chess players. In this case, the pieces are the human race and the players are the Adjustment Bureau.

David Norris (Matt Damon) is a hot-shot politician running for Senate in New York. After losing the race, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men's room. Why is she in the Men's room? She says that she's hiding from a group of security guards that were supervising a wedding that she just crashed. In actuality, she was arranged to be there. She was meant to meet David, have a tender conversation with him, and inspire him to make a rousing speech that would spring board his political career toward the White House. Who arranged this? Unseen men who create the plan to David's (and everyone's) life. And it's important that David (and everyone) stay on the right track.

But David is not interested in the plan. He's interested in Elise. When he sees her again on a public bus, he makes sure to get her number. This is when the Adjustment Bureau steps in. A group of men in hats explain to David: he was supposed to meet Elise in the bathroom, but he is not meant to see her again. Any prolonged relationship that they have will have serious consequences on their plan, and change the course of their lives irreparably. These men can walk in and out of doors that seem to break natural physics laws and can always keep their eyes on him. If David dismisses them, they'll erase his brain. That there is room for tinkering in a system that's
supposed to be run by a larger-than-life being seems strange. Everyone's life has already been written, but when the Adjustment Bureau tells David that he must never see Elise again, aren't they suggesting the possibility of free will?

Small questions like this bothered me throughout. Not because they felt like holes, mind you, but because the film takes itself so seriously that it made me begin to question the logic behind an idea that is inherently illogical. It makes a lot of sense that this film is based on a Philip K. Dick short story. Dick never focused on the wonder of the outer worlds he created, but the horror, and
The Adjustment Bureau has some underlying questions poking mercilessly at the afterlife and the "higher power". One of the adjusters, Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), openly questions The Chairmen - the ominous name given to the one who runs the Bureau - in a way that feels suspiciously like Loki questioning God for his delusions of grandeur. But director/screenwriter George Nolfi doesn't have enough interest in really upsetting anybody, and instead this question about the man upstairs becomes a red herring for the plot.

Which leads into another issue I saw. The adjusters, all equipped with trench coats and fedoras, are put into positions that are so preposterous that I feel that their very existence was prime material for a farce, a satire about predestination. But Harry is morose and questioning what it all means, while other adjusters, like Richardson (John Slattery), are despondent, not willing to challenge the system because they know that the towel has already been thrown. Then there's the appearance of Thompson (Terrence Stamp), a higher official who's brought in when David's constant search for Elise becomes out of control. Stamp is a terrific actor with virtuoso abilities, but he plays Thompson with such strict seriousness that it's almost hard not to laugh at how hard he's trying. That Nolfi is unwilling to make these adjusters a damning metaphor, nor make them exploit their comedic potential, is unfortunate.

There are some elements here that work. Almost all of them have to do with the combination of Damon and Blunt. They have wonderful chemistry, which makes you root for them. It's an interesting occurrence when you care for the racers while hating the race, but that's a testament to how good Damon and Blunt are together. In a less high concept screenplay, their natural connection could really be the basis for a love story that is very effective. Not that the love story in
The Adjustment Bureau isn't, but the obstacles that they face become distracting. Their tale feels like it's above running in and out of doors that lead to Yankees Stadium and The Statue of Liberty.

Trying to adapt Philip K. Dick to the big screen can be hard.
Blade Runner didn't work till it's director's cut was released, and outside of Minority Report, there wasn't another adaptation that really clicked (Total Recall works, but for other reasons, mostly having to do with Ah-nuld). That a movie studio would even attempt a cerebral sci-fi is commendable, but Dick's vision of the Adjusters is a lot more challenging toward a stubborn inland sensibility. The Adjustment Bureau is too tame, too happy to settle for being a thriller rather than raising questions amongst its viewers. It does have some fantastic work from its two lead performers, which may be all that most audiences will have wished for. I would have liked to see a little more balls.