(On Cable TV, January 2018) Whew. Some movies are entertainment, some are a spectacle, but Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? feels like a roller derby of emotional destruction. Set among the world of northeastern academics, what first feels like a quasi-parody of mainstream drama quickly turns ugly as a middle-aged history teacher and his wife start arguing, then bring in another younger couple in the clash for “fun and games.” Nobody escapes unscathed, especially the audience. A solid drama (with streaks of dark but undeniable comedy) becomes something special by virtue of its actors—Not only do Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play the lead couple viciously squabbling, but they were married to each other at the time. Neither Taylor nor Burton have done anything better in their career—Burton, in particular, progressively shrugs off a meek drink-holding character to best his co-star in merciless put-downs. As for Taylor, it’s still impressive to see how she’d transform herself from a sex symbol to a frumpy shrewish housewife for the purposes of the film. (Not that it’s completely successful—even overweight and made-up with aging lines, Taylor-being-Taylor still looks better than anyone else.) The film was shocking then for its frank language, but it’s still somewhat disturbing today due to its pure harshness: the film’s four characters constantly tear themselves down in the worst possible ways, and score hits on bystanders even when attacking each other. It’s as good as dialogue-driven drama gets, and it’s still remarkably effective today (albeit maybe a touch too long). As a capstone to the Taylor-Burton relationship, though, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? carries a weight that goes simply beyond a great movie.
(On TV, January 2018) Some films are epic enough that they transcend time, and so Cleopatra remains even today a reference for excess in filmmaking. Long a yardstick for the most expensive movie ever produced, Cleopatra is still notable today for the lavishness of its super-production, whether it’s re-creating Cairo or Rome at the height of their power, putting hundreds of extras on-screen or giving more than sixty different costumes to its title character. And then there’s Elizabeth Tailor herself—while people of my generation mostly remember Taylor as an older woman of multiple marriages and excessive makeup, movies like Cleopatra firmly justify why she was a sex symbol for most of her career. Compelling even when the melodrama around her gets too thick to be taken seriously, Taylor is the film’s centrepiece and offers an unqualified reason to watch the film despite the nearly oppressive running time. Not that she’s the only reason: Seeing her play off future-husband Richard Burton is a great way to get into one of cinema history’s most remarkable romance and an insight in the frenzy that their affair created in mid-sixties pop culture and tabloid reporting. Spread the viewing over two evenings if you can—there’s an intermission and a somewhat different tone to the film’s two halves: the first half (Cleopatra and Julius Caesar) is better, but the second half (Cleopatra and Burton’s Mark Anthony) is more interesting. Cleopatra should have been much shorter, but there’s a lot of stuff shown on-screen, and more peak-era Taylor is never a bad thing.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) I remember reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four during high school and being bleakly depressed for the rest of the day. I’m pretty sure we saw clips of the movie in class, but not the entire film. As it turns out, Nineteen Eighty-Four itself is just about the most straightforward adaptation that anyone could have made of the novel. The high points are all there (even down to the device of having the protagonist keep a diary as a way to insert voiceover narration), the atmosphere is bleakly industrial and the film, at times, seems to have emerged straight from the dreary post-war years in Britain, all bathed in dusty grays and dirty browns. It is also powerfully depressing to a degree that I had almost forgotten: By the time the film discusses removing fundamental biological imperatives as a way to further control the masses, we’re way past most of the nicest dystopias out there. (In fact, Nineteen Eighty-Four makes most post-apocalyptic stories look positively cheerful in comparison.) John Hurt is both bland and good as protagonist Winston Smith—Richard Burton is more lively as voice-of-authority O’Brien. Writer/director Michael Radford did an exceptional job putting Orwell’s genre-defining vision on-screen. But, as faithful as the film can be to the novel, it’s also limited by that faithfulness. Having seen Brazil, I know which bleak dystopia I prefer.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) As far as war thrillers go, there’s something almost awe-inspiring in seeing Where Eagles Dare take on so many familiar thriller tropes and dance with them. Considering that the screenwriter is none other than once-best-selling novelist Alistair MacLean, the strength of the script may not be a surprise. Still, there’s a pleasant mixture of familiar elements handled well as the characters punch Nazis, confront a hidden traitor, set out to expose a double agent (through a remarkably good scene), fight their way in and out of a mountain fortress … and so on. The production techniques are dated, but the film keeps a certain interest largely based on its straight-ahead plotting. Seeing Clint Eastwood in a solid role also helps, although Richard Burton does have an unusual screen presence here. Where Eagles Dare is big-budget blockbuster filmmaking from another era, and while it certainly has its problems now, it’s an avowed crowd pleaser, and as a straight-ahead adventure movie, a bit of a change from the kind of self-important WW2 drama that now seems the norm.