Sunday, February 28, 2010

Classic Film Review: All About Eve

ALL ABOUT EVE (1950, Best Picture)
DIRECTED BY: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
STARRING: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Hugh Marlowe, Celeste Holm and Marilyn Monroe

"If nothing else, there's waves of love pouring over the footlights." ~Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter)~

The corruption that comes with wealth and fame, and the desire to be publicly adored, has been a recurring theme in Hollywood cinema for as long as we can remember. 1950, in particular, was a big year in terms of films dealing with fame and how fleeting and unforgiving it can be. Sunset Blvd. came out the same year as All About Eve and each film boasts wonderful lead performances from their actresses, Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis, respectively. While Sunset Blvd. addresses the perils of aging and being forgotten in Hollywood, All About Eve tackles another dark side to fame: ambition and, ultimately, betrayal.

Aspiring actress Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) closely scrutinizes every performance and real-life drama of her Broadway idol, Margo Channing (Bette Davis) to the point of obsession. Quiet, polite, although obviously a little unhinged, Eve goes out of her way to integrate herself into Margo's elite inner social circle; quickly rising up the ladder to success as she goes from shy and awkward assistant to close friend and confidante to the star. Right from the start, everyone loves Eve. Playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife, Karen (Celeste Holm), are beyond smitten with the young ingenue. Director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), who also happens to be Margo's younger beau, is intrigued by the odd young woman who has suddenly entered their lives. Even arrogant British theatre critic, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), has the urge to learn more about the enigma that is Eve Harrington. However, all winds up going horribly wrong as Eve shows her true colours through her driving ambition to be famous and the backstabbing betrayal of her former idol, and new nemesis, Margo Channing.

Like Sunset Blvd., All About Eve has a sharp, witty and clever script. The dialogue is rife with astute Hollywood references and inside jokes. One particular interesting decision was casting Marilyn Monroe in the role of rising ingenue, Miss Casswell. She shows up on the arm of more than one famous beau and, while at a party, is encouraged by her agent to mingle and flirt with the variety of directors, playwrights and producers in attendance. Monroe's own career was undoubtedly built in a similar fashion. Being young and beautiful in Hollywood or on Broadway can go a long way towards making one famous.They'd need to be on standby to replace the aging Margo Channing's of the world.

Despite the fact that it was released well over 50 years ago, its story and themes are still relevant today. It takes a bleak approach to the gritty and cheap actions done behind the scenes by people who thrive in the limelight and also fear it when it starts to falter and dim. Margo Channing is 40 years old. She knows she can't play a 25 year old on stage anymore. Eve Harrington is 24 years old and talented and everyone on Broadway knows it. Eve wants nothing more than to be Margo Channing from 15 years ago.

As superstar Margo Channing, Bette Davis is a revelation. Always one of Hollywood's leading ladies, Davis steals the show, as usual, with her spot-on portrayal of an aging actress who is aware of her own mortality and the fact that fame can be fleeting. Ever confident and overly boastful by nature, Margo never felt her talent was under threat until the appearance of Eve Harrington. When faced with a pretty, young talent, Margo becomes all too aware that her reign as the queen of the stage may have reached its final curtain. Davis instills Margo with a fiery temperament and determination to prevail. It's fascinating watching her confidence in herself waver at the hands of a younger rival. Despite her diva-like ways, Margo is likeable and sympathetic and this is all thanks to Davis' wonderful performance. As a viewer you root for her success and want nothing more than for this 40 year old woman to remain the stage's leading lady.

As Eve Harrington, Anne Baxter is appropriately eerie and unlikeable. Initially, her fascination with Margo Channing is chilling in its quiet and penetrating stillness. She allegedly has a tragic past, involving a husband who didn't return from the Second World War. In gaining sympathy, (including from Margo, who cries when Eve tells her sad tale) Eve becomes a fixture in Margo's camp. As the film progresses, Eve further and further alienates the viewer as she flirts and laughs her way to the top. Baxter makes Eve a fascinating and unsettling study of non-violent aggression and behind-the-scenes backstabbing ambition.

Ironically enough, when the 1950 Academy Award nominations were announced, Anne Baxter fought to have herself in the Best Actress category alongside Bette Davis, as opposed to Best Supporting Actress. Baxter obviously saw her role as equal to that of Davis in terms of both screen time and talent. It's likely the reason why Davis didn't win a much-deserved Best Actress that year, as the fact that both actresses were nominated for lead performances likely split the vote.

Ah, when life imitates art.

All About Eve is a classic film that should still be talked about amongst movie fans and critics alike and dissected in film courses. Like a fine wine, this film has aged incredibly well.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Movie Review: Shutter Island

Shutter Island (2010)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Michelle Williams

Back in 1992, Martin Scorsese remade the 1962 film noir classic Cape Fear. With Robert DeNiro and Nick Nolte in the leads, the film was nothing more than aesthetically pleasing camp. The actors were all over-the- top and many people would be hard pressed to even remember that it was a Scorsese remake and not some other director with a mediocre film resume.

Shutter Island plays out like Cape Fear, only much worse.

Based on a Dennis Lehane novel, Shutter Island is set in 1954, when film noir was at its peak at the multiplexes across America. It's clear that Scorsese's goal was to make a film noir-ish psychological thriller. Just don't expect Shutter Island to be that film.

U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are paired up together to solve the disappearance of Rachel Solando, an inmate at the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Naturally, it's situated on an island where the only way on or off is via ferry boat. There they meet Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley), a man who wants to issue solved while providing the least amount of help possible. There's also a subplot involving flashbacks of Daniels' days as a soldier in the Second World War (he was one of the liberators of the Dachau concentration camp) and his rocky marriage to his deceased wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams).

The priority of most noir films of the 1940's and 1950's was its emphasis on visuals and style. The tragic and bleak conclusions were often secondary to the overall atmosphere of the film.

Stylistically, Shutter Island succeeds. Everything is washed over in a variety of grey tones and shadows. However, the plot, script and performances leaves much to be desired.

Neo-noir films (especially those of the 1970's) acknowledge the conventions of classic film noir, from the melodrama to the psychologically expressive visuals to the protagonist as a criminal. These are all derived from the German Expressionist film movement of the 1920's.

This film plays off as the horrible lovechild of Das Cabinet Dr. Caligari (1919, the greatest German Expressionist film of all time), Fight Club (1999) and A Beautiful Mind (2001). Unlike Roman Polanski's 1974 masterpiece Chinatown or Scorsese's own Taxi Driver, Shutter Island is nothing but an absolute mess and a wasted opportunity.

DiCaprio is such a wildly inconsistent actor. When he's at the top of his game, he's golden (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Catch Me If You Can), but when he's off his game, he's lousy (Titanic). DiCaprio, who has always struggles with accents, does so again here. His Boston accent fades in and out and alters so often to the point of distraction. Shutter Island is definitely his weakest outing in awhile. He and Scorsese need a break from one another.

Ruffalo, always a reliable actor, is probably the films strongest link. Despite an awful, sidekick role, he makes the best of what he's given. And he never once feels out of place in his 1950's fedora and trench coat.

Kingsley, Williams and the other secondary characters are all mediocre at best. Granted, the material they were given wasn't exactly award-winnin, but one could argue that any genuinely talented actor can rise above the material. That never happens here.

The plot is ludicrous. The outcome of the film is obvious about an hour into it's two hour and twenty minute running time. Just when you think the film couldn't possibly take another nonsensical turn, it does just that. This isn't a cool, mind-twist of a film. It's just outright awful.

It's hard to say anything more about the film as it would "spoil" the millions of twists and turns it takes. However, it's doubtful that many people will leave the theatre enthralled and enthusiastic about what they just witnessed.

It's clear that this twice delayed film had more woes than the studio could handle. By releasing it in February (where all movies go to die), the big bosses in Hollywood clearly didn't want anything more to do with it. Understandably so.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Movie Review: Avatar

Directed By: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver

I eventually caved and decided to give Cameron's much-hyped film a chance. My reluctance to see this film was due in large part to overhype and the fact that it was supposed to be the greatest CGI film ever (which is not exactly something that gets me all fired up about movies). I prefer my sci-fi and action with a great script and characters, thank you very much. FIlms along the lines of Alien, Aliens, Minority Report, T2: Judgement Day or even last years Star Trek update. Regardless, I gave in to the hype and went to see it (in 3D, naturally).

The script borrows from numerous other sources, especially Dances with Wolves and Fern Gully. Its themes of colonization, the destruction of Mother Earth and governmental power have all been done before. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, much better here than he was in 2009's worst film, Terminator: Salvation) is a former Marine (?) who is now bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He is set to replace his deceased brother on a government mission to befriend and, ultimately, betray the Na'vi on the planet of Pandora. Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) wants complete access to a valuable type of rock which is important for something (don't ask me to remember, but it's the equivalent of America wanting Iraqi oil). Jake is given an Na'vi body which he controls with his mind while sleeping. He and Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) slowly learn about the Na'vi way of life as they become integrated into the social network of these nature-loving blue aliens. And, because it wouldn't be a James Cameron film without a love story threatened to fail due to catastrophic events, Jake falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who is chosen by her people to teach Jake the ways of life on Pandora.

James Cameron deserves credit only where it's due and that belongs to his direction. Arguably, there isn't another director working today so dedicated to his own personal craft. Avatar was a labour of love for ten years and Cameron's dedication to the film is undeniable. Without question this would be a challenging film to helm, with a three hour running time full of CGI and motion capture censors, elaborate sets and some relentless action scenes.

The script, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. Cameron has clearly borrowed from so many other sources that it hardly seems like it would have been a challenge to write the script in the first place. The dialogue is typical Cameron mumbo-jumbo and lame one-liners, however, some of the cast manage to make it work, mainly the always reliable Sigourney Weaver. It's no small wonder that Cameron wasn't nominated for Best Original Screenplay this year.

The cast is decent. Sigourney Weaver is definitely the standout in terms of performance and talent. I cared about Dr. Grace Augustine more than most of the other characters. Sci-fi is where she's at her best and she suits the film perfectly. Sam Worthington, as Jake Sully, is alright but I couldn't help thinking that, in the hands of a better actor, Jake could have been so much more. However, it's undeniable that Worthington had chemistry with Zoe Saldana as Neytiri. Saldana, who impressed everyone in her role as Uhura in Star Trek, is only mediocre here, prone to overacting on more than one occasion. Maybe she thought she had to try harder to emote in order to be recognized under that CGI mask? Cameron recently commented that motion capture acting will "empower" future actors. How so? Who knows what he means. I don't see what's so empowering about having your face hidden and all those subtle, emotional nuances of your performance wiped clean away with a CGI brush.

As for the CGI and other various special effects, I might be a bit of a curmudgeon but I don't get what all the fuss is about. Yes, some of the visuals are spectacular (I like how the spirit of Pandora is viewed only as little white jellyfish things that land on you), however, it's nothing I haven't already seen in other films with a strong emphasis on CGI. For example, The Lord of the Rings' Gollum is just as great, if not better, than Neytiri. Plus, Andy Serkis is a much more talented actor. When we first get to see Jake in his Avatar form he looked pretty lame and was nothing exceptional. It's only when he was in Pandora and surrounded by other CGI effects that it looked good. This isn't the future of CGI. It's very much the just the present state of CGI.

Despite the overhype and the mediocre script and performances, the film itself was still had some enjoyable moments. While the running time makes the story drag in the middle, it's pure adrenaline and entertainment, which is what a blockbuster film should be. Watching the film in 3D definitely added to the experience and, if nothing else, Cameron's love for his project is evident in every frame. Just take it for what it is: a blockbuster.