Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book Review: Dark Victory - The Life of Bette Davis

Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis (Published 2008)
By: Ed Sikov

The title is misleading. Those expecting a full-length biography of the life of screen legend Bette Davis should look elsewhere. That's not to say that film critic Ed Sikov's book isn't worth a read -- only that it is somewhat misrepresented as something it is not. 

It's not so much a biography as a glimpse of the film sets for each one of Davis' films, plays and television appearances. Sikov, being a critic, instead discusses her performance in each piece and provides an analysis of her abilities in each role, with only brief glimpses of what was going on in her personal life at the time. 

Warners Brothers co-creator, Jack Warner, once described Davis as "an explosive little broad with a sharp left." When Sikov quotes great lines like that you can't help but wish a little more emphasis had been placed on Davis not only as an artist, but as a complex person. Married three times (all tumultuous, sometimes abusive, relationships), with a raspy voice, heavy drinking problem and a smoking habit that could rival all the chain smokers the world over, Davis was so much more than just her body of work. I suppose I was expecting a biography in the more traditional sense -- discussion of the subjects career with an equal balance of focus on their life away from work. 

Davis is my favourite actress and I'd never read a book on her before. While Sikov provides insightful and fascinating interpretations and opinions on her performances and her on-set behaviour, I was also hoping to learn a lot more about her legendary rivalry with diva-extrodinaire Joan Crawford, her strained relationship with her daughter, B.D., and whether or not people truly believed that the injury she caused her second husband, Arthur Farnsworth, actually caused his premature death while still in his 30s. Davis was forever surrounded by controversy and damaged relationships -- from a broken home that included a distant father, an overbearing mother and a mentally ill younger sister, to three disastrous marriages and an estranged daughter. In addition to her personal woes -- which made for great tabloid fodder -- Davis was also known as being one of the most difficult actresses in Hollywood to work with and was rumoured to have had numerous affairs over the years with everyone from her directors to her co-stars, including actor Errol Flynn. 

However, even though the focus of Dark Victory wasn't quite what was expected, it's still a superior source on Davis compared to some other resources available. Sikov perceptively illustrates how Davis often utilized her personal issues to transform whatever character she was playing at the time into a fully realized and complex human being. Like other screen legends both before and after her success, Davis understood that acting was a unique art form that should be respected, discussed and left open for interpretation. 

Although she was difficult to work with and had countless battles with Warner Brothers over her rights to portray her characters as she deemed fit, no one would dare dispute that she was fully committed to her career -- even when forced by the the old school studio system in Hollywood to appear in films with lousy scripts and dull characters. While Davis always made the best of each situation when it came to her film career, her personal life was always in need of more attention; but she ultimately neglected her responsibilities in that area of her life. 

Davis was a woman ahead of her time, always ahead of the curve -- someone who sassed back at studios when she disagreed with something; a woman who wore pants, cursed like a sailor and once refused to offer her "services" to a theatre producer in exchange for a starring role. Sikov does an admirable job of portraying Davis exactly as she was, even going so far as to note in his introduction that the reader may come away from Dark Victory not liking Davis very much as a person -- but Davis never sought public approval. 

Although not quite a biography, Dark Victory provides well-researched insight into one of the most fascinating women to ever grace the silver screen. 

I was originally going to put up an interview, but I came across this fan video instead. (Music: "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes). 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Movie Rant: Should Some Movies Be Exempt from Serious Film Criticism?

When I got together with a friend of mine a couple of weeks back we felt like watching an older film -- something light and fun, nothing heavy. Neither of us had seen Benny & Joon (1993), nor did we even know the premise. But, it had a young Johnny Depp so we figured it couldn't be that bad.

The premise: Benny (Aidan Quinn) has lived with his younger sister, Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) ever since their parents died when they were young. Although Benny and Joon are old enough to live in their own separate apartments, Benny continues to live with his mentally ill sister both as a protective measure and out of necessity (or so he thinks). When Benny loses a strange bet to one of his friends, he is forced to bring an eccentric young man named Sam (Johnny Depp) into his household. Uncomfortable expressing himself through words, Sam instead makes his feelings known through brilliantly imitated routines from old Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films. When Sam and Joon form a romantic bond, Benny starts to experience jealousy about his sister's growing independence from him.

While reading up on the film afterward I noticed that audiences and critics alike were pretty divided about their opinions. Some took it for what it was -- a sweet little distraction that was never meant to be taken as high quality cinema -- while others lambasted it as an empty and contrived film that reduced mental illness to a trivial character trait. Film critic Desson Thomson of The Washington Post commented on Rotten Tomatoes: "Riddled with insufferable contrived zaniness deals as deeply with mental illness as The Sound of Music explored the genocidal advance of the Third Reich." Yikes, I say. It got me thinking about film criticism and how, every once and awhile, it's simply okay to thoroughly enjoy a film without damning it for not being high-calibre cinema. I completely disagree with Thomson's comment and it made me think about films that I may have reviewed in the past that I maybe shouldn't have taken so seriously and criticized so harshly.

Joon (Masterson) and Sam (Depp). 
For the record, I loved Benny & Joon. Really, really loved it. It's one of those fun, light, feel-good movies that leaves you feeling better about everything. Yes, the script is a little sugary at times and, sure, it does overdo it on the quirkiness factor. However, I think there are certain movies that should get a pass when it comes to hardcore film criticism. Movies like Benny & Joon don't profess to be Oscar-calibre masterpieces packed with worldly insight into great matters. It's entertainment; a distraction that just so happens to have really lovely performances from the whole cast (especially Depp, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role). As Roger Ebert said in his favourable review of the film: "The movie suggests that love and magic can overcome mental illness and, at least for the length of the film, I was prepared to accept that. Much of the credit goes to Depp, who takes a character who may have seemed unplayable on paper, and makes him into the kind of enchanter who might be able to heal Joon." Here's Ebert, arguably the most famous film critic working today, and he responded favourably to Benny & Joon, despite its numerous flaws.

The audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes is at 85%, which is incredibly positive. The critical rating is lower, at 73% -- but that's still not too bad. Overall, it would seem the majority of people enjoyed the film. That being said, I'm sure everyone will agree that it's not exactly anywhere near one of the greatest films over made -- but it did what it set out to do; entertain.

I know there are a lot of people out there who hate film critics and think they shouldn't exist. I know people personally who say that it's one of the most useless occupations because it ultimately has little influence as to whether or not a person winds up seeing a certain film. While this may be true to a certain extent, I'm of the opinion that all art forms should be fairly criticized so that they can be discussed and studied. How else will we learn to form opinions, share our ideas and talk about popular culture without art criticism, in all its forms?

So, I guess my question to you is: Should some movies be exempt from serious film criticism? Or, if not exempt completely, should they be rated differently than certain higher quality films?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Movie Review: Super 8

Super 8 (2011)
Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard

This film has been hyped as E.T. meets The Goonies -- and this is precisely one of the biggest problems with Super 8, the big budget blockbuster produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Lost creator, J.J. Abrams. It's trying to be too many things at once and, ultimately, the end result is one big mess of a film.

Set in a fictional Ohio town in 1979, the film opens with the revelation that young Joe (Joel Courtney) has lost his mother in a freak accident at her place of work. Four months later, he's slowly moving on with his life and preparing to enter a kids short film contest with his three best buddies, led by "director" Charles (Riley Griffiths). Using Super 8 technology to film a zombie movie, the boys recruit Alice (Elle Fanning) to play the lone female role in an attempt to add a little emotional depth to the film. Joe and Alice aren't supposed to hang out together, though, as Joe's father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler) blames Alice's father, Louis (Ron Eldard) for his wife's accident. But the two feuding father's are inevitably thrown together when Joe, Alice and their friends witness an epic train crash in the middle of the night and get caught up in the government's cover-up of a really messy, loud, unseen creature.

The first half of Super 8 is enjoyable and holds a lot of potential -- but it just never delivers on the thrills it promises. The film is enveloped in nostalgia and, if nothing else, Abrams paid great attention to detail when it came to the setting and overall atmosphere. It felt like those 1970s Spielberg hits like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And, with the exception of a couple of modern words kids weren't likely saying in 1979 ("douche", anyone?), Super 8 is ultimately an homage to those classic summer blockbusters from back in the day. It would seem that everything would be headed in the right direction for this to be the major hit of the summer. However, Abrams tries to make Super 8 too many different things at once and, unlike Spielberg, he's unable to pull it off successfully.

Chandler, Courtney, Fanning and Eldard in Super 8.
One of the biggest disappointments is the "big reveal" of the creature that is terrorizing this small Ohio town. The whole first half of the film leaves you anxious to find out what exactly this creature wants and what it is capable of. Abrams builds tension by not letting the viewer know what direction the movie is headed in. But, once we hit the halfway mark, all of that goes downhill. Not only are the viewers left knowing very little about the creature, but when you do actually get to see it, you're likely going to wish that you hadn't. It's a combination of really laughable CGI and one of the worst "kid meets creature" scenes you are ever likely to see. Abrams doesn't pull off emotional cheese quite like Spielberg and Super 8 suffers because of it. The whole second half of the film, specifically the final 20 minutes, are painful to watch. The end result is that it's less of an homage to monster flicks and Spielberg epics and more of a major disappointment.

Unlike other uneven Hollywood blockbusters, watching Super 8 steadily decline in quality as the film progresses is harder to watch simply because it had started off with so much potential. There's a really, really great film in there somewhere, but it gets lost and muddled by a script that wants to be too many different things at once.

The strongest feature of the film? The cast. Newcomer Joel Courtney is a wonderfully natural young actor and he's more than capable of carrying the entire film on his tiny shoulders. It's safe to say we'll be seeing more of him in the future. Then there's Elle Fanning, an incredible actress and arguably the best performer under the age of 18 working in Hollywood today. She's all natural grace and charisma and her portrayal of Alice is that of a young woman on the verge of becoming an adult -- she still retains her childlike wonder while channeling her anger, frustration and loss as well as any adult would. The other young child actors are all excellent, especially Riley Griffiths as the bossy and hilarious director of the zombie flick. Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard do the best they can with their two underwritten roles as the father's of the main protagonists (you keep hoping to see more a connection between Jackson and his son, Joe, and Louis and his daughter, Alice). It almost seems like a waste that such a talented group of kids, gifted with great comic timing and emotional maturity, should be wasted on a film like Super 8.

In the end, there are both positive and negative attributes to this summer thriller -- it's just a shame that there is more of the latter. It's just further proof that a solid cast can't save the ill-conceived script of a movie with an identity crisis. It's a mess of M. Night Shyamalan proportions.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 23

Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as Daphne and Josephine

I've written about this 1959 classic a bunch of times already. My obsession with this film has continued, unabated, for more than a year now -- ever since I watched it twice in one week and wondered why it had taken me so long to watch it in the first place.

Sure, it may not constantly have laugh-out-loud moments and it may not be to everyone's personal tastes, but Some Like It Hot has one of the cleverest scripts to ever come out of Hollywood, thanks in large part to director Billy Wilder and co-screenplay writer I.A.L. Diamond. It's so ahead of its time it's unbelievable.

The film is an absolute farce, with a broad sense of humour that revolves around a simple plot involving two musicians who witness a Mob murder and go into hiding by dressing as women and joining an all-girl touring musical band. It has a manic, high-octane energy -- everything feels as though it's moving in fast forward. Devoid of any dull moments, Some Like It Hot is as intelligent as it is hilarious. The jokes are whip-smart, the social commentary is sharp and the starring cast of Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe are all impossibly perfect in their respective roles. The most startling thing about the film is that, to this very day, it remains as fresh and relevant as it was in 1959.

Marilyn Monroe as Sugar.
How many films of the 1950s and early-1960s openly challenged traditional gender roles and sexuality the way Some Like It Hot did so effectively? The first time I watched it I was blown away by the fact that it even managed to bypass the rigid Hollywood Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines. With it's jokes about gender identity, sex and Jack Lemmon's character openly embracing and revelling in his new life as Daphne (even going so far as to accept a marriage proposal from the millionaire Osgood Fielding III), it's amazing that the film even went on to become a monster hit in 1959. Hollywood executives were left reeling, but the film remains a classic -- one of those genuinely superb films that actually deserves the laurels and praise of being labelled a 'comedy classic.'

Some of my previous entries about Some Like It Hot:
(1) 30 Day Movie Meme Day 16: Favourite Quote
(2) Hollywood Tidbits: Some Like It Hot Part I.
(3) Hollywood Tidbits: Some Like It Hot Part II.