Thursday, March 31, 2011

"I dance like the wind": Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?

I knew this film would be an exercise in being emotionally beaten over the head but goodness.

To talk about our reason for watching first: Elizabeth Taylor was beyond fantastic. Her range in just this film is more than most actors can accomplish in a lifetime of work. And then there's her vocal range from that cackle of a laugh to the screeching yell to the wistful storytelling to the quiet whisper that she's afraid. Seriously. They don't make actresses like that anymore. She was already a well-established actress when this film was made but she was supposed to be pretty. To yell while pretty is one thing. To gain 30 pounds and wear an oversized shirt and yell with smudged eyeliner and mussed hair, that's quite another thing. She's not glamorous in this movie.

And they certainly don't make actors who can hold their own against actresses like her anymore. Richard Burton somehow manages to share a screen with her without looking like he's fighting her for screen time or space. Somehow they're both larger and louder than life.

At first I didn't like the Nick or Honey characters but as soon as Honey set foot in the bar and "danced like the wind" and starting yelling "hump the hostess" she became one of my favorite characters ever.

And Mike Nicols is genius. Responsible for some damned good movies including Charlie Wilson's War, Closer, and Angels in America as well as The Birdcage and The Graduate (and others I'm sure, but those are the ones I've seen), this was his first film. Can you imagine? Directing your first film and it's based on a play written by Edward Albee and is adapted by Ernest Lehman (Sound of Music, Sabrina, The King and I, West Side Story--and those are just a few before this film) and stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton? Who doesn't feel like the most unaccomplished person in the room in that situation?

In terms of the actual film as a whole, I'll admit it made me uncomfortable for most of the time. But I think that was it's goal. I'm not meant to have a relaxing viewing of a film about people who have issues separating reality from illusion. And I'll admit that I didn't have a damned clue what was going on until the end and I'm still not sure I completely understand. But, I think that's also part of the point.

In random fun facts, this is the first film to contain "screw" and (probably not used in a film ever again) "hump the hostess" and that caused a few problems with the MPAA. Apparently Taylor shouting "Goddamn you!" wasn't as novel :)

Friday, March 25, 2011

We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

I'm not sure when I first saw Elizabeth Taylor on screen. I'm betting it was Taming of the Shrew or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but it could have just as easily been a non-silver-screen performance as the height of her AIDS activism was during my childhood after the death of her beloved Rock Hudson from the disease in 1985. Regardless of when I first laid eyes on the feisty beauty, I've ardently admired her work since.

Ultimately, this is a blog about loving movies (even if the list tosses us its fair share of outright duds) and something that comes along with that love of movies is a love of the people who make them. So, when Athelas asked if we should bump Gaav in favor of an in memoriam viewing of a Taylor film, I quickly agreed (plus, I'm a tad scared of what Gaav might include). Titles of films were tossed out: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cleopatra, BUtterfield 8 . . . and, now that I think about it, Suddenly Last Summer, National Velvet, Father of the Bride . . .

But, none of those films are on the list.

Taylor appears on the list three times with A Place in the Sun, Giant, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. A woeful underrepresentation in my opinion.

Athlelas and I decided to watch A Place in the Sun and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf for a lot of reasons. I've seen A Place in the Sun and she's seen Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I've seen half of Giant but thought it one of the most boring things I've ever seen and it's a million minutes long. With Place, we get a young, gorgeous Taylor and with Virginia Woolf we get Taylor 15 years and 30 pounds later in a role that won her an Oscar.

So, bear with us please as we procure copies of films and rearrange schedules to watch them. We'll be back shortly with posts on two of Taylor's finest.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Gaav (1968)

Okay then. This Iranian film is credited with inaugurating "New Wave" Persian cinema. If New Wave Persian cinema is in any way related to French New Wave cinema with its experimental style and general disdain for narrative structure, I imagine it's going to be a long day at the movies for this blogger. This film traces the consequences of an Iranian farmer's love for his, you guessed it, cow. Will the movie look at the political factors that would eventually result in the Islamic Revolution? Is it going to be more about the danger of love and deception? Will I be able to watch it without taking a break?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Well, That Was Exhausting: Philadelphia

I'd never seen Philadelphia. But not for any dislike of the film; I was a tad too young when it came out (which was apparently January of 1994 instead of 1993) and then it was more of a "should watch" rather than a "want to watch" because I knew what it was about, I basically knew what happened plot-wise, and, honestly, I was already educated about AIDS and accepting of homosexuality so this film felt like more of an assignment, an education in things I already knew.

Also, this post is later than I'd usually post because I wasn't excited about watching it. For all of those reasons above and because I assumed it would be drastically and irreparably dated thanks to the leaps and bounds made in medicine and the slight progress made in society (even if there continue to be morons in abundance).

But, good god. This is the first film of our little project that's made me tear up in a serious way. And I gasped audibly with a physical reaction at moments--which made the cat trying to take a nap on my leg none too happy. The film is terribly moving and, sadly, still incredibly relevant. If we took out the few highly amusing instances of 1990s technology and squinted at the wardrobe, most of it still applies. Segments of society are still ignorant of the actual facts of HIV and AIDS, and homophobia is still sadly rampant. A few more mentions of God and sin, toss in gay marriage, and, voila!, it's 2011. And, worldwide, AIDS continues to be a subject about which ignorance prospers. Hi there, Pope, looking at you.

So, this film's content emotionally exhausted me but it's continued relevance killed me.

Philadelphia still works for me

for two reasons. The first of which addresses the undeniably emotionally overwrought and melodramatic style and content. At first, I was thrown off by the odd camera angles and the strange lead-in, and I was wondering why it was being filmed like a fable. But then I got it: it's an opera in prose, complete with love, death, villainy, redemption, the whole bit. And, as Rent and Angels and America concur, AIDS is a particularly operatic illness, much like TB was. It takes beautiful young people and rapidly and mercilessly ravages them seemingly with no rhyme or reason. Because that's its genre, I think it's allowed to be a little two-dimensional in its characterization and plot.

The other reason is that it's a movie about discrimination and hate as much as it is about disease. And, though we've made remarkable, almost miraculous, strides forward in how we treat AIDS, we still have big problems with how we treat gay people, as evidenced by the anti-gay slurs the movie features still being parroted by morons the country over nearly twenty years later. And sympathetic and human gay characters that transcend the "sassy gay friend" stereotype aren't exactly overrepresented in mainstream entertainment. I don't think this movie is perfect in its representation of homosexual relationships or what it means to be gay in America, but it didn't pander either.

And though Hanks was good, and I think the unblinking focus on his deteriorating body was much needed at the time, I think Denzel had the harder job, actually, in playing his character's homophobia as simulateously central to his self-conception as a man and remarkably ill-defined and clumsily articulated. He's drawn to Andy almost against his will, resists any emotional connection mightily, and only tenuously jettisons his discomfort at the very end. I'm not sure the movie knew what to do with the relationship between these two men, but I think the movie is posing the question in an honest way, and it's one that probably still needs some exploration. If we took out the AIDS, how would a friendship between these two men operate? Nat, can you think of a movie that seriously handles the development and maintenance of a friendship between a gay man and a straight man?

Also, as an aside, I will never get tired of delighting in early 90's technology.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Philadelphia (1993)

na na na na na na NA. na na na na na na NA. Thank you Bruce Springsteen for providing a catchy soundtrack to tragedy. In the years before this movie came out, about a million Americans had been diagnosed with the AIDS virus, which was understood to be a death sentence. With the exception of a few celebrities (Magic Johnson, Arthur Ashe), AIDS was considered a "gay man's disease," and mainstream cinematic representations of homosexuals weren't, shall we say, overly sensitive when they existed at all. Philadelphia changed all that. In this inspired by real events tear-jerker, beloved actor (and straight dude) Tom Hanks plays an infected lawyer unjustly and illegally fired because of his diagnosis and rapid decline in health who hires Denzel (straight dude playing a straight dude not totally simpatico with gayness) to represent him in a wrongful dismissal case. Though the film was criticized at the time for its tame portrayal of the physical relationship between Tom and his boyfriend (Antonio Banderas!), and I suspect it's going to feel a touch over-sentimental, I'm curious to see how progressive it feels nearly twenty years later.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

That's How It's Done, Adaptation

"It" referring to making a movie that manages to both lampoon and enact Hollywood cliche without (and here's where Adaptation failed) becoming a crappy movie.

This one was just as fun as I remembered--the cameos, the meta-tastic plot, Vincent D'Onofrio. And I think it ages really well. This time, I also appreciated the conceit that movies and reality are seamless. One is always bleeding into the other. In The Player it's sinister for Griffin, but I think it's actually really beautiful and exciting for the audience of the movie. I think it's a really compelling argument for the importance of paying attention to movies. We're always simultaneously in one and watching one.

I also counted about a dozen films that we're probably going to end up watching during the course of this project! For me, I'm either hot (Gosford Park) or cold (Nashville) on Altman, but this one was a winner. It also made me want to have an L.A. film-fest. This, L.A. Story, Chinatown. . .

In which my Age Matters: The Player

The Player is a hard one for me. I wasn't insanely interested in the film as it played and I have a feeling I missed 90% of the references and cameos. While I could say, "hey, that guy was maybe probably in a movie I've never seen" a lot, I couldn't name a lot of names or connect people with memories of having seen that film or that personal/public life hijink. And that maybe probably aspect got old after half an hour. The only way I can effectively describe this is to be a little hyperbolic. The faux film within the film offered the most recognizable cameos for me. Imagine watching the whole film and only recognizing Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, and Bruce Willis. That was basically my experience. Again, that's hyperbolic because I do recognize Tim Robbins, John Cusack, Angelica Huston, Cher, and a few others but given the slew of once famous people in the film, recognizing only a hand full is an absurdly small amount.

For more perspective, I've only ever seen two of Tim Robbins' films made before this one came out in 1992--Top Gun and Bull Durham--and I can absolutely guarantee you that I saw neither of those films before 1992. Any of those actors I know for things that came out LONG after this film. Why? Because I was 12 when this film came out in April of 1992 and early 1990s movies weren't one of my focuses when I decided to watch "old" movies.

For most movies, that wouldn't be a problem. We've obviously watched more movies made before I was born during this project than movies I would legally be able to watch in theater. But, the whole point of this movie is that it's a satiric insider's look at Hollywood and to watch the film effectively you have to get the cameos and one-liners that compose the film's insider quality. If you don't get those, the film is really long and drawn out.

But I also don't want to dismiss it altogether. It is an interesting and somewhat truthful look at how Hollywood works even now, so in that way it's entirely relevant almost 20 years later. It's also an really wonderful look at how reality and story can become seamlessly intertwined. But these two aspects also depend heavily on the cameo/one-liner aspect of the film for the actual satire. It's not as amusing or satiric a film if all of these famous people didn't play along and offer a send up of themselves. The trouble there is that the film then only truly lives for a certain group of people who either saw the film in 1992 or are really acquainted with those actors. Otherwise, most of the audience is actually more familiar with Vincent D'Onofrio (because of Law & Order) than Tim Robbins or any other actor in the film and that really lessens the impact and scathing commentary.

But, why did we have to watch this before we die? I'm betting the author of 1001 saw this film in 1992 and knows all of the inside jokes. But, the book also ponders, "how the cream of Hollywood's stars--from Jack Lemmon  to Julia Roberts--ever agreed to be part of this supreme exercise in subversive mischief." First, I can't place where Jack Lemon is in the film. But, second, because Hollywood loves absolutely NOTHING more than a movie about Hollywood.

Further, I'd argue that the book has a hard on for Altman: six of his films are on the list. M*A*SH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville, and Short Cuts round of the six. What? No Dr. T and the Women?

Oh! I also, of course, recognize Lyle Lovett. Which just made me think of this video (which is actually more connected to this post than you'd think because Lovett and Envagelista were both in Pret-a-Porter, another Altman film).

Brainmate? I know you'd seen this one before and are probably more familiar with most of these actors than I am; did it hold up for you?