Thursday, March 31, 2011
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Month by Month, I hope to write one post about The Great Directors. Please visit for a full retrospective.
Monday, March 28, 2011
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Surprisingly enough, Cedar Rapids, Iowa is not known as a hotbed of debauchery, decadence, or wild goings-on. The Midwest is generally known for being populated by sweet, naive people like Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), people whose idea of adventure is trying a new fast-food place. The comedy in Cedar Rapids comes not from holding the characters up to ridicule, but in throwing them into unfamiliar situations totally outside their experiences and seeing them stumble into a positive resolution and seeing them grow.
Tim Lippe has never left Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He devotes himself to his employer, Brown Valley Insurance, was a sincerity usually reserved for children waiting for Santa Claus on Christmas. Lippe is in such a state of arrested development that he is thrilled to be having an affair with his former ELEMENTARY school teacher, Macy Vanderhei (Sigourney Weaver) to whom he's passionately devoted to. Now, Lippe has the most daunting task he's ever faced before him: represent the company at ASMI, a regional insurance company convention. That means going to the 'big city'--that's right, the aforementioned Cedar Rapids. This means getting on an airplane (for the first time in his 34 years), and more amazingly, staying at a hotel--with an indoor pool! Lippe greets all these amazing sights with an eager 'awesome'. However, his boss, Bill (Stephen Root) gives him a few words of warning: stay away from Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilley), someone who steals clients and corrupts all who come near him.
Tim has only one task at the ASMI Convention: win the Two Diamond Award (given to the most ethical and morally upstanding insurance firm) for the company, which has won it three years running. Now that Tim is in the big city, he sees all the things that the outside world has. He shares a room with Ronald (Isiah Walker, Jr.) and horror of horrors, Dean. Joining the three is another conventioneer, Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche). Tim wants to do his best and impress President Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), but Dean and Fox just want to have fun...with Ronald wanting a bit of fun but primarily to win the award through his own hard work so as to get back to his self-proclaimed secret passions of antiquing and community theater. As the convention goes on, the relationship between Lippe and Fox grows more passionate. Lippe soon learns just how Brown Valley won the Two Diamond Award, and he follows his predecessor's route in obtaining the prize. In his despair, he goes to a party with Bree (Alia Shawkat) the pleasant woman who stands outside the hotel every night (it isn't until late in Cedar Rapids that he realizes exactly WHY she stands outside the hotel every night). Eventually, Tim realizes that all he thought before leaving Brown Valley about ASMI and Dean and even Macy wasn't necessarily so and takes steps to fix things.
Cedar Rapids appears to be a distant relative to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, primarily in the main character (both sheltered men who can function in the world but who appear a bit perplexed by it). Given how naive and sheltered Lippe is, it is amazing he ISN'T a virgin, and even more amazing that two women (Fox and Bree) want him sexually and that he has had sex with two women (Macy and Fox). This is, after all, the same man who appears unaware when a woman is flirting shamelessly with him or how what he says can be misconstrued as a double entendre (his closing speech at the Two Diamond Award presentation being a prime example). To his credit, Helms doesn't make Tim an object of ridicule. Instead, Helms makes Lippe a hopelessly innocent being who truly sees his insurance job as a force for good in the world. There is a fine line between being naive and being stupid. The Betty White on The Golden Girls knew how to keep the balance with her Rose. Helms, unfortunate, does cross it. How else to explain how when trying to buy the award he appears unaware that $1500 in cash is of more interest than the $50 in a check he offers?
I figure this may more a flaw in Phil Johnston's script than either in Helms' performance or Miguel Arteta's direction. Helms never plays Tim as an idiot, which is why we end up liking him. Johnston's story in on the whole a sweet tale of a true fish-out-of-water, but at times the Lippe character doesn't appear to be balanced between between a true innocent and just being a moron. For example, Tim is shocked to see Fox remove her bra in the pool, but wouldn't someone who has been banging his dream woman (who, if using the actor's ages, is twenty-five years his senior--side note: Sigourney Weaver is 61?!) already be quite familiar with naked women? Another aspect I wasn't too thrilled on a personal level in Cedar Rapids was the notion that the Two Diamond Award (presented not based on something that could be measured like sales, growth, or positive customer ratings but on upholding a vaguely 'Christian' standard of morality) had not just been won by deception, but by a sexual deviant. It made me wonder whether ASMI was merely an insurance convention or a gathering based around a religious affiliation (having a prayer breakfast at the convention--something I don't think most multi-company gatherings have--didn't clear up matters). It made me wonder if this was a shot at Christians, something I am always wary of since I am reluctant to go after people's private faith system regardless of what it may be.
Those are a couple of issues I had with Cedar Rapids, as well as my feeling that the film is a bit too conscious of the fact that it's suppose to be quirky and offbeat. Take for example, when Lippe's new-found friends get him to perform at the convention's talent show. While the song itself was amusing (a parody of O Holy Night with lyrics about insurance) and he does say the song was sung at Brown Valley Insurance's Christmas Party, I did wonder if it was just a bit TOO clever for the embarrassed and almost frightened Lippe to sing a capella.
Whatever flaws Cedar Rapids has, they are made up for by the performances. Reilly's Dean is unapologetically vulgar, crass, and lusty. Dean's uncensored honesty is what makes us like him, although trying to play at our heartstrings by giving us a backstory about a failed marriage does seem a bit of an afterthought since it's at odds with how the character is through most of the film. Whitlock's Ronald is one of the better performances: the man of reason in the oddball group. I figure there are hints that Ronald may be in the closet (granted, his love of antiquing and reluctance to go into a same-sex wedding party Dean gets them all to crash suggest this) and if this is relevant to the general story it does appear to pop up only intermittedly. Heche has the best performance in the film: she is the most realistic character in Cedar Rapids. Heche allows us to see how innocent teasing and flirtations with Tim turn into genuine romance, but how this can only be a convention fling. Hearing her describe how Cedar Rapids itself is a break from her regular life is a wonderful moment.
Cedars Rapids has great moments of genuine humor which spring naturally from the story, and the closing credits are funny (albeit in a self-consciously obvious way). It isn't a perfect comedy, but the performances and the generally sweet story of a naive man discovering the larger world outside is entertaining. If only conventions could be this funny...
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
That is how Shakespeare described Cleopatra, and I believe it is an apt way to describe Elizabeth Taylor as well. Cleopatra, while not her best work, I think captures all the qualities of Dame Elizabeth: breathtaking, a bit gaudy, opulent, gigantic, impossible to miss, and never boring. I am aware that many critics hate the film, and while I recognize the problems within it, I am like the majority of the viewing public: I enjoyed it and was entertained far more than I thought I would be.
As stated, this was not her best film, and at the time she was deeply embarrassed by it. In fact, throughout her career, Taylor appeared quite dismissive of her actual acting talent/abilities. When she received the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award, she said something along the lines of, "Looking at (her performances), I wasn't all that bad, was I?" She seemed, like many critics of her time, to focus on her remarkable beauty and fail to see that Elizabeth Taylor was a strong actress.
She was giving great performances even as a child. Take National Velvet. Here, at twelve, she communicated that youthful innocence mixed with a great determination to win the Grand National, and we in turn believe she can do it. Taylor created in her Velvet Brown a character children would identify with and adults will cheer for. National Velvet, I believe, is the first truly great film of Elizabeth Taylor's career, one where her character is not dependent on an outward beauty but on the emotional connection she created between the screen and the audience.
As she grew into adulthood, admittedly, she grew more beautiful physically. There was the sweet, sentimental original Father of the Bride, but for a mixture of her amazing beauty and her talent, her true acting talent, that would be A Place In the Sun. It certainly helps to have Franz Waxman's haunting score, Edith Head's magnificent costumes, and George Stevens' brilliant direction. However, when we first see Taylor's Angela Vickers, we can see why Montgomery Clift's George Eastman was so driven in his need to be with her. SPOILER ALERT: I cannot remember who said it, but it is clear once seeing her on screen, I agree with whoever said that Taylor made the most beautiful motive for murder. END OF SPOILER. She becomes that obscure object of desire, that unreachable Goddess for whom life cannot continue without. Her performance is one of innocence, unwittingly the catalyst for a terrible tragedy. In A Place In the Sun, she mixes that innocence (perhaps obliviousness to the dark side of love) with a burning passion released by the guy from the wrong side of the tracks. "Tell Mama," she coos to Clift when he cannot tell her just how much he feels for her. "Tell Mama...all". What man wouldn't melt into her arms, or do anything to be at her side?
After A Place In the Sun, she was in more masterpieces where her performances should have put any doubts as to her acting abilities to rest. First off, there's another George Stevens film: the appropriately-named Giant. Here, Taylor has to not just age physically on screen, but have an evolution in her character. Leslie Benedict has to grow from a well-brought up Southern belle to a fiery Texan gal who has to stand up to her husband against the prejudice she encounters against the Hispanic population dismissed by everyone born in the Lone Star State. It could have been easy to have lost amid the grandness and epic nature of Giant, but Taylor's performance always holds your attention as the moral core of people not accustomed to have their old ways questioned, especially by a non-Texan. It is Leslie's strength that we gravitate to, her sense of doing the right thing regardless of how it looks, that makes Leslie the heroine of Giant.
Going against the moral courage of Leslie, we shift to her Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Although it's never overtly stated, it's clear Maggie wants one thing and one thing only from Brick: Sex. Passion. Desire. She wants to fill the man she loves with all of herself, and we all think Brick's crazy for constantly rejecting her advances. Maggie is an object of desire, but there's nothing obscure about it: it's blatant. Taylor used especially her body to project her desirability to someone who seems not the least interested: how she caresses her leg while straightening her seams before an ambivalent (in perhaps more ways than one) husband, how she stands in her negligee. However, like Leslie, Maggie the Cat isn't some sex-starved nympho: she's a strong woman willing to fight for her man. At the end of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she tells Big Daddy that she is expecting a child (which delights the old man). We are never truly sure of the veracity of the statement, but we agree with Big Daddy's appraisal of his daughter-in-law: she's got life in her. Take that statement in whatever way you wish, but it is certainly truthful.
Then came Cleopatra, that monument to excess, that spectacle that nearly brought down Twentieth Century-Fox and that for all intents and purposes brought about modern films (big paychecks for the stars, the ensuing massive press coverage of the good and bad of the production, paparazzi stalking of those in front of the camera). At the time of its release, critics were vicious, but I take the view of Roddy McDowall, who said that the film became so notorious that people couldn't see the forest for the trees. Is Cleopatra a great film? No--at times it is in danger of drowning in its own excess, and at times good actors (like Taylor, Richard Burton, Hume Cronyn) are dwarfed by their surroundings and slip into overacting. Even though Joseph Mankiewicz, an experienced filmmaker and first-rate screenwriter, was at the helm, Cleopatra still managed to bungle its efforts to reach the level of other epics like The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur. The problems that plagued Cleopatra are legendary, but even among the more chaotic elements there are still moments of brilliance: Cleopatra's arrival in Rome is, even almost fifty years after the fact, still a simply remarkable sequence.
Within it all, there stands Elizabeth Taylor: regal, grand, in perfect command of all she surveys. This is a constant with my thoughts: Cleopatra is not Elizabeth Taylor's finest hour as an actress. However, it is nearly impossible to divorce the lavishness of the Egyptian queen from the lavishness of the Hollywood royalty. Whatever the flaws, Taylor commands the screen in Cleopatra with such force that we sit in awe at the sheer spectacle of it all. Of course, we cannot ignore that this film is what brought her together with the Love of Her Life: one of the great actors of his generation: Richard Burton.
For my money, Elizabeth Taylor's greatest performance (in fact, one of the greatest performances on the screen by any actress) is in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Her Martha is a person whom we should all truly hate: a vile, vulgar, hateful, spiteful woman who emotionally tortures and belittles the seemingly wimpy George. What makes her performance more remarkable is that Taylor could not rely on whatever first made her a star. She could not rely on her beauty: Martha is a plump, disheveled person who appears to be falling apart at the seams. Her violet eyes cannot be seen in the black-and-white film (curiously, her first black-and-white film since Suddenly, Last Summer seven years earlier). Taylor has to rely only on her acting ability, and in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she takes us into the heart of a very angry yet haunted woman. Martha is a woman filled with spite and fury, but by the end of a long dark night of the soul, we don't hate her. We actually feel great sorrow and sadness for her when we see just how hurt and vulnerable she is, and how there truly is love between her and George (even though they hurt each other so much).
One could make the argument that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is just the Burton-Taylor marriage stripped of all its trappings of wealth, and that their next film, The Taming of the Shrew, is just the Burton-Taylor marriage played for laughs. This may be true, but just like one cannot help but marvel at the depth of wisdom and tragedy in her performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, one can't help but smile at her turn as the foul-tempered Katharina. What I truly enjoyed in The Taming of the Shrew (apart from Franco Zeffirelli's directing and Shakespeare's immortal words) is in how the film ends. At the end, while Burton's Petruchio congratulates himself on the successful 'taming of the shrew', we see Kate having the last laugh by walking out and leaving her "master" behind. Has she truly been tamed? Well, that's really up for debate in the film version. This Kate might be married, but she is still her own woman: a truly happy ending for all. As a side note: I am aware of the controversy about The Taming of the Shrew as being misogynistic at worst, sexist at best. I can only say that it IS suppose to be a comedy which we aren't suppose to take seriously. Therefore, we have to take it all with a giant grain of salt.
Of course, in discussing and reminiscing of Elizabeth Taylor's career, I would be remiss to forget her tireless work for AIDS research. She took on that cause long before and long after it became fashionable. When was the last time you saw a major star at an awards show wear a red ribbon? Once, they were de rigueur at any Hollywood event, but now...If we went by what those in the entertainment industry did, we would have thought AIDS had been cured. It hasn't--people live longer with AIDS, but AIDS itself is still sadly with us. Taylor never shied away from being associated with a sexually transmitted disease, especially one carrying a strong social stigma. People nowadays who may not know about AIDS or the fear it caused in the mid-to-late 1980s may think it is something from the past like bubonic plague. To her eternal credit, Elizabeth Taylor was persistent in her committment to find treatment and an eventual cure, and through her efforts at awareness and research, many people are alive. I imagine that besides her two competitive Oscars (for Butterfield 8 and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) the Oscar she was proudest of was her Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar for her work on behalf of AIDS research.
Thursday, March 17, 2011
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
I have heard from some of my friends who follow comic books more than I (who cannot tell the difference between DC and Marvel) about some of the new leads in upcoming comic book adaptations. I've already heard about the new Superman: Henry Cavill. The fact that the man who will personify one who stands for Truth, Justice, and the American way is British makes them think the film is already a failure.
If it is a failure, some of the fault may lie with Cavill IF and only IF he falters in his American accent. That is perhaps the biggest hurdle he faces--some actors are able to mask their native accents, some cannot. If you can tell he's British, then, no matter how good the film itself may actually be, the newest reboot of Superman will have already been dealt a death blow, a Kryptonite you might say.
The idea that merely because Cavill is British the new Superman will be a disaster is unfair. Last time round, with Superman Returns, you had a Midwesterner play the Man of Steel, and it was a failure. I have long argued that the failure of Superman Returns to connect with audiences wasn't just the result of Brandon Routh (although he had a part in it). The film failed because there was no true heart in it. Most critics loved it, it did well financially, but the film as a whole failed because the tone of it was so stern, so serious, so self-important, so ponderous, so glum (and even, I'd argue, so illogical in many points) that people couldn't embrace it to their hearts as they could Superman: The Movie with Christopher Reeve. That film is beloved because we got to know Clark and Lois and Jimmy. In Superman Returns, we didn't. The direction was not there, the story was not there. Therefore, that film wouldn't inspire a franchise. HOWEVER, to make Routh the fall guy was unfair.
I think that if Sucker-Punch fails, then the new Superman has a very bad chance of getting off the ground (no pun intended). Zac Snyder as director to my mind is a greater threat to Superman than Luther. His cinematic style (like in Watchmen and 300) is certainly reminiscent of graphic novels, but he seems uninterested in having anything resembling acting or genuine story. If he handles Superman in the same way, then it won't fly (no pun intended).
Finally, there is something that is lost amid whatever controversy Cavill unleashed with his casting: can he play Clark Kent? It's one thing to be the hero, but if Cavill can't handle playing the timid, meek, mild-mannered reporter from Smallville, again we will have a problem. After all, this is the thing about any superhero: you are playing TWO characters. Henry Cavill might fill out the suit, but can he wear glasses?
This dual identity deal will also haunt Andrew Garfield when he becomes your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man in The Amazing Spider-Man. Although he is a dual British-American citizen, let's face it: for all intents and purposes he's another Englishman in New York. The beef with him according to my comic book enthusiasts is three-fold: he's too tall, he's too old, he's too thin; at six feet (not counting that gigantic pompadour on his head) Garfield is only three inches taller than Tobey Maguire (at least officially, since in fairness I suspect Maguire might be 5'8", not 5'9", but now we're being picky). I shudder to think how a 27-year-old could be considered "too old" for anything, although granted at that age you are pushing the concept of successfully playing a high school student to an extreme. Frankly, he can't help being thin, and besides, Peter Parker is suppose to be a bit of a wimp pre-spider bite, right? So far the biggest hurdle is his age: how can someone nearing 30 play a teen (even though they do it on 90210)? We shall see how that is handled, but there is no doubt Garfield can speak Americano--The Social Network showed he can sound like an American.
Again, it all comes down to the screenplay. Part of the reason Spider-Man 3 failed was because the story was simply too chaotic, too much going on for us to keep track of at least three stories and how they tie in together. We have no idea how The Amazing Spider-Man will turn out, but the film will ride on how the story holds up: will it be an original origin story or will it try to fill in any gaps in the established storyline. We can only hope, but for myself, I doubt the British Garfield will sink a franchise. In fact, if handled correctly, he may head up a new franchise.
From what I know, no one objects to having a Welshman play Bruce Wayne. Christian Bale may be a little crazy, but he has been one of the best Batmans in the franchise. He has no problem speaking like an American because he's the type of actor who totally submerges himself into a role (sometimes to his detriment). I would argue that his Bruce Wayne is not the millionaire playboy of other incarnations, but a bit of a recluse who has no real outside interests, perpetually glum. Curiously, it's fitting for how Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have been: more dark, more unhappy, less fantastic, drowning with hyper-reality. He's not American, and the fans don't go crazy.
The same can be said for Canadian Ryan Reynolds as The Green Lantern. Now he has the advantage of being almost American so he's not considered a foreigner. He has the added bonus of being A.) an actor who is actually talented, B.) an actor known with a certain name recognition, and C.) an actor known for his physical body. Here, we don't have anyone objecting to having another American character played by someone not born or raised in the States. If the film turns out to be good (it might turn out to be a disaster--no way of knowing until the film is released), and it begins a franchise, then a man who is open about being Canadian (our bigger younger brother) will reach even higher levels of stardom and maybe broaden his screen roles.
Finally, we have someone who is from Down Under playing another American icon, and no one has raised a fuss about Australian Hugh Jackman playing Wolverine. In fairness, I've heard some grumblings that the 6'2" Aussie is technically far too tall to play Logan, who was shown to be a short man. Picky, picky, picky, says I. When Jackman has a good script to work with (X-Men and X2: X-Men United) he can be incredible. When Jackman has a bad script to work with (X3: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine), he is just hideous, and no amount of metal claws can make it work. It almost plays as parody. This is what makes The Wolverine so intriguing. Will Darren Aronofsky try to have us forget X-Men Origins or will he try to work with what he inherited? It's always been a curiosity to me, that the man behind Pi, Requiem For A Dream, and Black Swan (I'd rather forget The Fountain) would helm a comic book adaptation. It just seems so anti-artsy. Now, I haven't seen The Wrestler, but I figure Aronofsky can handle more common subjects. Still, I can't say I'm enthusiastic for The Wolverine, but I will be extremely curious as to how it will be handled under his hands.
Curious how I am more intrigued in what the director will do with the film than with the star regardless of nationality.
In short, an actor's nationality is entirely irrelevant as to how good or bad he/she is. Who objects to Vivien Leigh's Southern belles in spite of her rather posh British background? Do we say Al Pacino can't play Shylock because he is neither British or Jewish? Technically, Renee Zellweger is (like myself) a product of Texas, yet who doubted she was the ultimate British girl Bridget Jones (whose life oddly mirrored aspects of my own, much to my horror). I think the success or failure of Cavill, Garfield, and Reynolds depends less on where they were born than on how good they are as actors and how good the screenplay is. If both are good, then we needn't worry. If one isn't, we might stumble across the finish line. If both are bad, then we should consider deportation. My advise to all the fans, is: Give Them A Chance.
Saturday, March 12, 2011
For example, I noted that I have a goal of watching every Best Picture winner: all 83 of them. Now, I may have written reviews for just ten of them, but I have seen 67 out of them. If you are curious as to which ones I haven't seen, well, they are in order:
- The Lost Weekend
- Tom Jones
- In the Heat of the Night
- The Sting
- Annie Hall
- The Deer Hunter
- Kramer Vs. Kramer
- Ordinary People
- Terms of Endearment
If one is to be extremely technical, I do believe I've seen the last two, but I have no memory of them, so I've opted to include them in my "Unwatched" List. Wings is the only one not to have been released on DVD in the United States. There IS a VHS version, and Cavalcade has I believe been released as part of a package of other Best Picture winners, though no stand-alone version is available. Fortunately, both are now waiting patiently for me on my DVR.
As for the 15 masterpieces released from March 2009 to March 2011, I began to wonder which one would be The Ultimate. So first, let's see which ones were among the contenders. In alphabetical order:
(500) Days of Summer
I Love You, Man
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
The King's Speech
Michael Jackson's This Is It (aka This Is It)
Toy Story 3
Waiting For "Superman"
The Young Victoria
Quite a collection, ain't it? Contrary to what has been said about me, I am not a snob when it comes to film. One will note that I did not include the alleged Citizen Kane of our time (The Social Network). If I were like so many other reviewers, I would have been endlessly fawning over that film, but while it was a very good film I am perpetually perplexed by the hyperventilating it has inspired. Rather, I have opted to look over a wide variety: documentaries, comedies, costume dramas, and animation. A film should be judged by the quality in the filmmaking as well as the standards it was setting out to fulfill. That being the case, I can't quite bring myself to say Precious is BETTER than The Hangover but I love them both. Each of those films is brilliant in its own way and should be appreciated as such.
As such, I have decided NOT to select the very Best of the Masterpieces. I will say that both UP and Toy Story 3 had great emotional impact, but then again, so did Precious (a film I still find extremely haunting, heartbreaking, and oddly, even uplifting). Both The Hangover and I Love You, Man were completely hilarious, but they never had their laughs at the expense of their characters. Rather, it was their situations and their reactions to them that brought the laughter, and what's wrong with laughing every now and again? Other films, like Inception and Black Swan, did something I always like in a film: they trusted me to keep up with them; they did not insult my intelligence by dumbing things down but rather called on my mind to put things together.
I doubt I'll finish by year's end, going over every Best Picture. I have endless drafts of reviews waiting patiently for me to finish them. I have more retrospectives to complete as well as begin (I hope to start a Planet of the Apes films retrospective before Rise of The Apes is released). Yes, my work is not finished, not by a long shot. I have much to do, but I will not be discouraged. In the words of President Kennedy, "...but let us begin".