“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “The Guard,” and “30 Minutes or Less”: Movie Tickets
Plus revisiting Jimmy Dean with Robert Altman and reliving “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”
This 1966 film helped director Mike Nichols establish himself as a filmmaker who showcased great performances.
Mike Nichols had already made his name as a wunderkind of improv comedy and the theater by 1966, so it was only natural that his next step was to get into the movies. He didn’t make it easy on himself, choosing a long, darkly funny, yet disturbing Edward Albee play for adaptation, and one that was controversial for its language and frank sexuality even in the somewhat more permissive world of theater. Movies were still technically under the thumb of the extremely restrictive Hays code, and the code’s seal of approval was just the last in a series of hurdles that Nichols had to get over as a young director in order to bring Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to theaters. As it turned out, he smashed through that barrier just as he did the restrictions the studio tried to place on him regarding choices of collaborators, and whether to shoot in color or black and white. Woolf ended up being one of the final nails in the coffin of the dying production code before movies were assigned ratings.
As would become typical of Nichols, the film showcases great performances. In this case, that of Hollywood’s most famous couple at the time, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. The pair were never better onscreen together than they were here, as George and Martha, a middle-aged couple in relationship free-fall, engaging verbal abuse that is as cutting and hurtful as it is witty, and occasionally throwing in some physical abuse just in case the words didn’t sting quite enough. Taking place over the course of a single emotional black hole of a night on the campus of the college at which George is a professor, Albee’s words land like punches not just from character to character, but from the screen to the viewer. The film may have garnered press for its stars and its shocks, but it had endured by being a towering masterpiece.
View the trailer. Saturday and Sunday at the AFI. Saturday’s 2:30 PM screening includes a discussion with Sam Kashner and Nancy Shoenberger, authors of Furious Love, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century.
One has to wonder what it was like in the McDonagh household. Martin McDonagh quickly became a theater celebrity over the past decade for a string of hit plays laced with black comedy, violence, and profanity before writing and directing his first feature film, In Bruges, which featured more of the same. Martin’s big brother John Michael only has a couple of previous writing credits, including 2003’s Ned Kelly, but his first feature as a writer and director features plenty of the same sensibility. Bruges star Brendan Gleeson takes the lead as the titular guard (which is what the Irish call their police officers), a small town cop in the Connemara region outside Galway suddenly faced with a murder investigation, a gang of drug runners, and a hard-nosed American FBI agent (Don Cheadle). Gleeson’s Sergeant Gerry Boyle is the sort of unorthodox cop we’ve seen before, and the contours of this story are familiar, but McDonagh makes it work with skillful use of language and an off-kilter sense of humor that Gleeson and the rest of the cast navigate entertainingly.
Director Ruben Fleischer teams up a second time with Jesse Eisenberg, in 30 Minutes or Less, though they’re in far different places this time around. Fleischer was directing his first narrative feature in 2009’s Zombieland, and Jesse Eisenberg was just beginning to change his public perception from the poor man’s Michael Cera to the thinking man’s Michael Cera. For their second go-round, Fleischer has Eisenberg starring opposite Aziz Ansari as a pizza delivery who is kidnapped by a pair of bank robbers (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson), has a bomb strapped to his chest, and is told he’s going to rob the bank for them, or the bomb’s going to go off. Zombieland was an over-the-top action comedy exercise that tweaked genre expectations just enough to find a winning formula; here’s hoping that the sophomore outing manages to do the same.
Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem is best known to most as the creator of the character of Tevye the Milkman, and it was his stories about Tevye that would eventually become the basis forFiddler on the Roof. Joseph Dorman’s documentary provides a biography of Aleichem, but also a broader history of the evolution of Jewish culture in the 20th century. Using modern readings of the writer’s works alongside many old photographs from Aleichem’s life and the times and places that were a part of his culture and the shifting Jewish culture, the director looks to create a colorful portrait of an even more colorful life.
Robert Altman’s musical Popeye adaptation in 1980 seems to have an unfair reputation as a bomb; after all, the film made it’s money back twice over, and wasn’t exactly despised by critics. Perhaps it was just the idea of director Robert Altman sullying his hands with such a blatantly commercial product that left a bad taste in some people’s mouths. Altman responded by making his next three films much smaller-scale adaptations of stage plays, and the first of those was this film, an adaptation of a 1976 play by Ed Graczyk. The play takes place in that five and dime as a group of women meet to honor the death of James Dean 20 years before. Their interactions in the store play out against flashbacks revealing secrets from their past. Altman’s ensemble cast features Cher, Kathy Bates, Karen Black, and Sandy Dennis, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar 15 years before this film for her role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Blu-ray Pick of the Week: Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Fast Times at Ridgemont High has always stood apart from most of its ’80s cinematic brethren. It’s tone is nothing like the signature John Hughes comedies of the decade, it doesn’t have the surreal edge of Better Off Dead, or the hip-yet-unironic romanticism of Say Anything. Yet it’s also nothing like the cheap teen sex romps that producers had it pegged as before it came out. Just have a look at the trailer below, and see if it matches your memories of the movie at all; judging from this clip, you’d think it was practically Porky’s. But Cameron Crowe’s script—adapted from the book he wrote after going undercover in a California high school in his early twenties for Rolling Stone magazine—is both funny and smart. A sensitive, but never self-serious directorial hand by first time director Amy Heckerling grounds even the film’s most out-there moments. The result is a film where Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli can spill out of a van in a cloud of marijuana smoke without it feeling slapsticky, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Stacy Hamilton can seriously deal with teen pregnancy and statutory rape without it feeling like an after-school special. Fast Times was a film that launched careers for nearly everyone involved; just a year shy of its thirtieth birthday, and it’s probably aged better than some of its stars.
Special Features: Commentary by Amy Heckerling and screenwriter Cameron Crowe, a 40-minute behind the scenes featurette called Reliving Our Fast Times at Ridgemont High which includes interviews with many of the film’s producers and actors, and a music feature that tells you which artists are performing the soundtrack as the movie is playing.
View the trailer: