Boys: Perfect Hormone-y!

The History Boys is one of the best, most reverent, comprehensive and seamless transfers from stage to screen ever made. Recreating their original assignments for England’s National Theatre and Broadway, Alan Bennett’s adaptation of his own Tony Award–winning play, and Nicholas Hytner’s direction of it, are literate, intelligent, profound and a huge entertainment. All of the original cast members have made it to film, not only with their charisma intact but with even more wit and intensity than the confining angle of a proscenium stage could make visible. I wanted it to go on forever.

Opened up for film in all the right ways, the movie takes place largely in the classrooms of a school in Yorkshire where the eight brightest students are spending one extra term after graduation being prepped for the A-level entrance exams at Oxford and Cambridge. But the movie also expands to the playing fields beyond the windows, as well as the streets where Hector, the plump and popular professor of literature, scandalously gropes the genitals of his most attractive male students, riding his motorcycle to the boys’ homes and to the campuses of the two legendary universities where they hope to be accepted. Without flashbacks, and despite the addition of a few tangential teachers and hundreds of extras, the film is now a straightforward narrative about the purpose and value of education and the various uses to which it can be put in real life. Between the opposing methods of maverick Hector, the silly old queen who quotes W. H. Auden and scenes from Bette Davis movies, and pragmatic Irwin, the modern young by-the-textbook teacher from Oxford who believes more in results and style than truth and substance, the eight students develop an exhilarating passion for knowledge that runs the gamut from the Renaissance and Rembrandt to Rodgers and Hart. While they study and debate and challenge their teachers as well as each other, they also learn about life, sexuality, loyalty and unrequited love.

Before they part, the eight boys become men and the two rival professors competing for their hearts and minds become human, revealing their differences, similarities and flaws, as one generation passes its experience and knowledge on to the next. Compared to the stagnant ideas festering in most of today’s movies, so much brilliance and inspiration is not only provocative, it’s quite devastating.

On Broadway, The History Boys won the most Tony Awards of any straight dramatic play since Death of a Salesman. The film deserves to win even more: A special Academy Award should be created for ensemble work just to honor the entire cast. As the lost and lonely Hector, Richard Griffiths fills the screen with humor and girth, using his red-apple cheeks to mask the sadness and doom in his personal life. Frances de la Tour is splendid in her role as the outnumbered female instructor forced to match brains and wits with a school full of men. All eight of the boys are beyond perfection, especially Dominic Cooper as Dakin, the class stud with the self-assurance and sex appeal to seduce whomever he pleases, regardless of age or gender, and Samuel Barnett as Posner, the sensitive one who loves show tunes and Dakin. When he sings “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” looking directly at Dakin, or fights back tears and says, “I’m a Jew, I’m small, I’m homosexual and I live in Sheffield. I’m fucked,” these moments are nothing short of heartbreaking.

I know the actors had already worked together for a year when the film was made and undoubtedly knew each other well, but it still requires arduous concentration, rapport and split-second timing to bring so many characters in a play so vividly to life on the screen without losing the scope and scale of the original work’s dramatic impact. The camera captures the intimacy of these boys’ relationships superbly, revealing in their articulate conversations and expressive faces more moment-to-moment naturalism than the play did. This is remarkable when you consider the fact that most of them had little or no film experience. It is doubly amazing since the entire movie was made with a small budget in only five weeks between the end of their London run and their Broadway opening. Any way you slice it, The History Boys is a blooming miracle. I absolutely loved it. Dear Alan Bennett: I hope you are already working on a sequel.

R.F.K. Revisited

Surprises pop up wherever you look this week. I expected nothing much from Emilio Estevez as a writer-director hyphenate, and even less from a cast of mixed breeding, some of whom I often consider second-balcony. But Bobby is pure serendipity. It’s a sprawling political epic centered on a wide variety of people both heroic and ordinary, events both big and small, in Los Angeles’ fabled Ambassador Hotel on the black and fateful day that Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Every frame is informed and fueled by Mr. Estevez’s impassioned mourning for a figure who came close to changing the course of American history. Bobby is exciting, involving and riveting. In light of the recent elections, when so many people set out to revitalize a country that had grown polarized and pessimistic, it also seems more contemporary, energized and relevant than it would have a year ago.

The date is June 4, 1968, three months after the 42-year-old Senator from New York threw his hat in the ring for the Presidential election. During the course of that day, Kennedy would win the crucial California primary and later arrive at the Ambassador for a victory rally.

When he gets there, the hotel is alive and swimming with noise, preparations and activity. The manager (William H. Macy) pretends to stand for honor and social justice, firing the food and beverage manager (Christian Slater) for racial prejudice, but he’s nevertheless cheating on his wife (Sharon Stone), who runs the hotel beauty parlor, with a switchboard operator (Heather Graham). Two friends (Elijah Wood and Lindsay Lohan) are getting married so the groom can avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. An affluent Democratic socialite (Martin Sheen) checks in to play a role in the evening’s festivities, while his wife (Helen Hunt) panics because she packed the wrong shoes. The long-suffering husband-manager (Emilio Estevez) of an alcoholic nightclub singer and current headliner at the hotel’s famed Coconut Grove (Demi Moore, in the film’s most memorable performance) finally walks out on their marriage when she refuses to sober up in time to introduce Kennedy at the dinner in his honor. In the kitchen, Laurence Fishburne is a sous-chef who uses philosophy to control his anger toward racism, and Freddy Rodríguez is a gentle room-service waiter forced to sacrifice two coveted tickets to watch Don Drysdale play in a Dodgers game that night. Watching it all with a mixture of pride and nostalgia are two retired doormen (Anthony Hopkins and Harry Belafonte), who would rather hang around the lobby and play chess than watch the rally on TV. They are all wonderful. The only subplots that fail to convince involve a coffee-shop waitress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who has just arrived from Ohio to become a movie star, and a drug-dealing Jesus freak (Ashton Kutcher) who gets two junior members of Kennedy’s campaign staff stoned on LSD. The more of his personal friends that Mr. Estevez calls on to join the fracas, the closer the movie gets to being dangerously in need of crowd control.

Still, as the guests multiply and the staff, volunteers and security guards (representing the American ethnic diversity that Kennedy would have united) all move inexorably toward the night’s grim and inevitable conclusion, Bobby achieves a ferocious power of its own. Although the hero is played only by the real Bobby himself in news clips of the events, the staged horror and bloodshed in the Ambassador kitchen is palpable and terrifying. The world’s dreams of a better future were stopped by bullets in an act that shocked a nation and degraded humanity, but Mr. Estevez makes it clear that his film speaks from the heart about the need to look for those dreams again. Filmed entirely inside the Ambassador Hotel shortly before it was bulldozed—another Hollywood landmark faded into history—the film has an authenticity that is impressive. For the most part, Mr. Estevez handles his cast with kid gloves and gives them room to grow and stretch, cross-weaving 22 characters in and out of each other’s lives with precision and believability. In the end, archival footage of the rally wafts into the words of Bobby’s last speech, and the voice of a true statesman fills the soundtrack with the wisdom that violence breeds violence and repression breeds retaliation, but compassion breeds peace. Celebrating a spirit of change and promise that was cut short, Bobby embraces the people and ideals that inspired a troubled and divided country to try and change the course of history. It could happen again.

Harsh Truth

Christian Bale has different hair, a different weight and sometimes even a different face in every film—and, like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scarlett Johansson, he’s appearing in entirely too many of them. In a lurid, violent thriller called Harsh Times, with his head shaved almost to his scalp, he’s nearly back to the human-skeleton look of The Machinist. Bale plays Jim, a brain-scrambled veteran back from Iraq, desperate for a job with the L.A.P.D. so he can marry his girlfriend in Mexico and bring her across the border. Turned down because of his past history of gang violence, he hangs out with his best buddy Mike (the terrific Freddy Rodríguez from Six Feet Under, also in Bobby, above) and goes on a binge of booze, drugs, and murder. Now up for a job with the Department of Homeland Security, Jim shoots vinegar into his willie with a turkey baster to pass the urinalysis test. The shocks pile up, and so do the bodies. Disillusioned and enraged, he drags the reluctant and basically decent Mike down a path of lies, deception and crime. The closer they get to going straight, the further they stray from redemption. When they finally both get jobs, they are simultaneously busted for concealing guns and alcohol in their car. Minutes away from expunging their rap sheet, they can’t resist one last chance to wreck their luck by going to Mexico to score a fortune in drugs. The ensuing tragedy makes you realize that for some kids coasting and cruising through mean streets without a moral compass, there is no turning back from self-made destiny. Written and directed by David Ayer, with all of the filthy language and blood splattered all over the sidewalk that won him an Oscar for Training Day, this is a gruesome movie that lives up to its title.

Harsh Times is an hour-by-hour diary of two crazy, unreliable, irresponsible dudes trying to find a way to fit into the same society they hate, facing one hurdle after another until they appear to butcher half of Los Angeles. The fact that Jim and Mike remain likeable despite all of their flaws is a tribute to Mr. Bale and Mr. Rodríguez. No matter how much damage they inflict on property, people and themselves, they make sitting through Harsh Times less harsh than it has a right to be.

Boys: Perfect Hormone-y!