Tuesday, July 30, 2013

All About Eve

All About Eve
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter

Some movies are famous because they come from a certain director.  Some are famous because they tell a fascinating story, and others are famous because of gorgeous cinematography.  While All About Eve’s director is certainly famous enough, and it’s story interesting enough, I don’t think this is where it gets its power from.  No, All About Eve’s power comes directly from two sources: smart writing and wicked acting, and here, the two go hand in hand.  This entire movie is about characters, about winding them up and watching them interact with each other.  And it’s just phenomenal on that score.

Margo (Davis) is a famous theater actress with a tight knit group of friends, including Karen (Holm), and her assistant Birdie (Ritter).  One night, Karen sees a young woman, Eve (Baxter), who has never missed a performance of Margo’s latest show and takes her backstage to meet her idol.  What inevitably unfolds is Eve’s wrangling her way into Margo’s life, slowly and insidiously trying to not merely follow in Margo’s footsteps, but actually take over her life.  She takes Margo’s place on the stage and tries to steal her boyfriend away.  But even Eve meets her match as soon as she comes up against oily theater critic Addison DeWitt (Sanders).

The opening scene sets up the entire plot, even letting us know, more or less, what will happen, and certainly establishes the vicious attitude of the film.  We are treated to George Sanders’ biting voiceover as he sarcastically points out, as only Sanders can, the foibles of nearly every character in the room.  Our first major character introduction, besides Addison DeWitt, is Karen, and Holm is ever so good in keeping a placid façade that nonetheless cannot hide her disgust.  We then have a close up on Margo, and here, even more so than Holm, Davis is barely containing a sense of hatred.  Right from the moment the flag drops, All About Eve is vicious and underhanded, and it’s bloody fantastic.  Although I wouldn’t call All About Eve a film noir, it may be likened to a female noir, at least in terms of character interaction.  There are no guns and no death and certainly no shadowy lighting, but it has a bit of noir attitude.  It’s transplanted from the world of crime to the world of the theater; we get to watch people tear each other apart not with bullets but words and attitudes.  Again, I would never classify All About Eve as a film noir, but I do believe my attraction to this film is related to my attraction for classic noir.  

Plus Marilyn Monroe.  What more could you need?
What’s key here is that we know from the get go, from before the first backstage scene with Margo’s crew, that Eve is acting.  We can tell from how Eve bows sycophantically when she is accepting the Sarah Siddons award in the opening scene that nothing about her is genuine.  The fact that Karen and Margo do not applaud is merely confirmation, not a revelation.  When, ten minutes later, she is regaling us with her tale of hard luck and woe, we don’t buy it for a second.  This turns the focus in this scene not to Eve, but to Margo.  We watch with disbelief as Margo swallows every damn word Eve feeds her.  Personally, I love it when Birdie immediately calls Eve out, how Birdie can see through her shenanigans immediately.  That’s key, because it gets us thinking about the distinctions between Margo and Birdie, why Margo buys it but Birdie doesn’t.  Eve’s ploy would never work were it not for Margo and her ego, and this first meeting sets that up perfectly.  Birdie is utterly without ego, a sharpshooter who simply calls it like she sees it.  Margo, on the other hand, while kind and loyal, is also full of herself, and her ego is too well-stroked by Eve to allow her to see clearly, and that is her downfall.

Davis is, naturally, fantastic in this, one of her most iconic roles.  If it were any other actress playing Margo, I would use the term “brave” to characterize this performance, but because it is Davis I will say it is “par for the course.”  “Brave” becomes a redundant term when discussing La Davis; she was an actress full of fearlessness.  In particular, I am astounded at the continual references to age in All About Eve.  Margo seems to comment nearly continually about the age of people around her, knowing full well how young Eve is compared to her.  Margo makes jokes about her age, which is never explicitly revealed, but these jokes always betray a sensitivity towards aging.  Margo realizes that she is too old to play the romantic heroine anymore, and as an actress, what is she now to do?  Her role is changing and she does not want to simply accept her movement to less gracious roles, but sadly, she is forced to do exactly that.  For Davis’ part, she was 42 when she played Margo, and she looks every day of it, perhaps even older.  There are bags under her eyes and creases in her forehead, and her jaw sags ever so slightly.  How sad that I find this unusual, to see a middle-aged woman playing a middle-aged woman and looking exactly like a middle-aged woman, and what a comment on Hollywood.  What roles are there for an actress above a certain age?  With that in mind, it’s stunning that both All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard were released in the same year, as both films tackle the issue of the marginality of the aging woman, but not men.  As Margo says, “Bill’s thirty-two.  He looks thirty-two.  He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it twenty years from now.  I hate men.”  I get the feeling that if we locked both Margo Channing and Norma Desmond in a room together, they would either claw each other’s eyes out or get massively drunk together while swapping anti-aging tips.  

Several years ago, I saw All About Eve at the Dryden.  I had seen it before on DVD, but I rarely pass up the chance to see a film on the big screen, as I am all too aware that the right (or wrong) setting can alter the effect of a film.  What I did not know, as I settled into my regular seat, was that All About Eve is an iconic film in the gay community.  My ignorance was quickly wiped away, as it became very apparent very fast that there a large number of, how shall I say this, vocal fans of the film in the audience.  What resulted from this was an absolutely uproarious evening, with booing and hissing at Eve and cheers aplenty for Margo’s bitchiness.  The experience gave me an entirely new respect for the sheer entertainment factor of this film, and it was one I’m glad I got to experience.

I’ve returned every year or so to All About Eve, and every time I do, it keeps getting better.  As I age, although I don’t consider myself old, I find myself enjoying it more.  There’s a great deal going on in All About Eve (and I didn’t even get to mention how much I adore George Sanders!), and multiple watches simply give me more to think about.  The great films bear up to repeated viewings.  All About Eve is undoubtedly a great film.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Graduate

The Graduate
Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross

While not as definitive or landmark a film to me as it is to many people, especially those of my parents’ generation, The Graduate remains a potent, awkwardly comic, and ever-unsettling coming of age story.  Given that the first time I saw it, I had not yet really “come of age,” it makes sense that it was mostly lost on me then.  Re-evaluating it, however, in order to write this piece, I found myself smiling, cringing, and appreciating The Graduate in a way I distinctly do not remember doing before.

Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) has just graduated with awards and honors from college, but he isn’t in a celebratory mood.  Upset and disconnected, he doesn’t know what he wants to do.  Enter Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft), his father’s business partner’s wife, a woman he has known since childhood.  When Mrs. Robinson tells Ben that she would like to sleep with him, the two enter into the least sexy affair you’ve seen in some time, one born of a desire to escape boredom rather than any kind of attraction.  Things get immensely complicated when Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Ross) comes home from college on break and Ben finds himself falling in love with her.

Part of the reason I felt so massively underwhelmed by The Graduate when I first saw it was its advertisement as a comedy.  In seeing it a second time, I think I chuckled maybe three times, and smiled about half a dozen times.  If you’re watching The Graduate expecting a laugh riot, well, don’t.  Categorization of this film is tough, as there are certainly comic moments (“Plastics” is good for a smile, as is “You’re the most attractive of my parents’ friends”), but overall, I find it a very emotional story.  Terms like “dramedy” were invented with films like this in mind.  But I remembered that I didn’t find it laugh out loud funny, and approached The Graduate a second time watching it as a drama.  The film makes more sense to me this way. 

Benjamin’s tale is a difficult one; a young man who has achieved much in school but now finds himself lost.  He is Hemingway’s Lost Generation, he is Generation X of the nineties, as he battles this sort of existential angst that threatens to consume his very soul.  Benjamin does many things in The Graduate to try to distract himself from this frighteningly hollow sense of emptiness and despair, but he never really manages to succeed; the famous final shot is proof enough of that.  Mrs. Robinson is a physical distraction, and her daughter Elaine isn’t much more.  Benjamin becomes obsessed with the idea of Elaine rather than Elaine herself, and I have trouble buying that his protestations of love for her are real.  He sees in Elaine a kind, gentle young woman and suddenly a possible pathway out of his despair appears to him.  Had it been a different girl at a different time, he would have been pounding on the window of a different church at the end.  It was not Elaine in particular, it was the notion of her.  But neither the thought of Elaine nor Elaine herself can save him from his life, as the ambiguously downbeat ending seems to say.  Nor is Benjamin terribly likeable.  While, as the definite central character of the film, there is an automatic tendency to want to root for him, Benjamin does many things that make this difficult.  Stalking Elaine, for instance, after knowing her a relatively small period of time and upsetting her greatly; engaging in emotionally self-destructive behavior for another.  I suppose he is the “hero” of The Graduate, but that does not make him good.  

Hoffman, in his first major film role, is tremendously good as Benjamin.  His performance in the first half, before Benjamin has met Elaine, is nothing short of phenomenal.  Hoffman is awkward and uncomfortable in everything he does, from robotically grabbing Mrs. Robinson’s breast to sitting on the bottom of the swimming pool in a diving suit to nervously checking out a room at the Taft Hotel.  Rather than the Hoffman that is more well known today, one who overacts and typically delivers broad performances, this is an incredibly self-contained Hoffman.  We feel how much he is holding on the inside as Benjamin, how much unnamed pain he carries around, how unhappy and depressed he is as he presents a bland smile to the camera.  Hoffman loosens Benjamin up in the second half after Elaine has been introduced, hinting at her as his possible salvation, but the performance isn’t quite as interesting.  It makes sense, yes, just not as compelling. 

Mike Nichols, in only his second feature film (after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), directs a visually fascinating story.  The influence of the French New Wave is all over The Graduate, most notably in the montage where Benjamin is against a black background and we see him watching TV or sleeping with Mrs. Robinson or avoiding his parents.  There are a few nifty match cuts (jumping on a raft switches to jumping on Mrs. Robinson), some interesting point-of-view scenes (watching from Ben’s view as he is in his scuba suit and all we hear is breathing), and a lack of fear about getting too far away or too close to the actors.  There are times when he physically distances the camera from the actors, there are long takes, and scenes where we cannot hear the conversation being carried out.  The Graduate burst on the scene in 1967 to much acclaim, and with filmmaking techniques this innovative for the time, it’s easy to see why.  It still felt fresh to me, despite the fact that the film is *gulp* coming up on its fiftieth anniversary.  

Having lived through my horrible twenties and some slight adventures in depression, I can, in some way, relate to Benjamin Braddock.  I don’t approve of his actions, but his feeling of discontent feels all too familiar.  Brilliant performances by Hoffman and Bancroft (which I did not mention here, but she fills the screen as the dominatrix-esque Mrs. Robinson), Simon and Garfunkel’s iconic soundtrack, Nichols’ glorious cinematography, and its undeniable place as a touchstone film for an entire generation ensure that The Graduate will continue to be discussed for years to come.

Arbitrary Rating; 8/10

Friday, July 26, 2013

Three Brothers (Tre Fratelli)

Three Brothers (Tre Fratelli)
Director: Francesco Rosi
Starring: Charles Vanel, Philippe Noiret, Michele Placido, Vittorio Mezzogiorno

Nothing like a death in the family to start out a movie in dreary fashion.  Three Brothers, while not actually depressing, feels like the cinematic equivalent of a sleeping pill.  It’s slow, it’s rather dull, and it made me feel rather woozy and disconnected.  Not, perhaps, its point, but that’s what it did to me.

The death of their mother calls grown sons Raffaele (Noiret), Nicola (Placido), and Rocco (Mezzogiorno) from their modern lives to their ancestral home to aid Donato (Vanel) their elderly father.  Each of them brings their metaphorical baggage as well.  Raffaele, a judge, is being targeted with death threats by terrorists for a case he is considering accepting and it haunts him.  Nicola, a labor organizer, dreams of better conditions for work but also is tortured by his impending divorce.  Rocco is the head of a school for juvenile delinquents.  Feelings of grief but also isolation and disillusionment run rampant for everyone.

How memories and fantasies blend together into the narrative of the film is probably Three Brothers’ strongest attribute.  The death of the mother naturally brings everyone together but also has them reminisce and reflect and dream for what they want in the future.  The flashbacks work very well within the context of the story.  They are brief and clear and emphasize a point.  The memory of Donato, the father, as he recalls a day at the beach with his young wife was particularly touching.  Later in the story, we have some dream sequences as the characters turn their thoughts to the future, and these are equally well done.  Raffaele has nightmares of being shot over his job, Nicola fantasizes of reuniting with his estranged wife, and Rocco dreams of cleaning up the streets and displaced youths of Italy.  Fitting in well, these moments were the highlight of the film for me.  I wish there was more of them.

Why do I wish there was more?  Because the rest of it dull.  Oh my god dull.  I watched Three Brothers on a day when I was tired and ill, and I know from my own experience that I have so much more patience for slow-moving films if I’m tired and less agitated – it’s easier for me to get lost in the world of the film if my brain is less keyed up.  But still I was unable to get wrapped up in the world of Three Brothers that day.  I understand that the film is trying create an attitude, a feeling of sadness, of laconic grief, of that depressing realization that you’re no longer connected to your childhood home, and it does in fact manage to do this rather well.  However, I found myself struggling to stay awake and struggling even harder to focus on the film, and I never, NEVER have trouble staying awake for a movie.  So take it as you will that this one nearly put me to sleep.  It’s desperately slow and nothing really happens. 

Strike that – there is one thing that happens over and over and over again.  Raffaele and Nicola debate politics in every other scene.  Raffaele the judge is calm and even-minded, always seeing both sides of the story, while Nicola the union worker is passionate in his siding with laborers looking for rights.  We get a change of pace when Raffaele debates politics with his old friends down the pub instead of with Nicola.  Oh yes, much different.  Then back to issues with the politics of Raffaele’s job.  Then back to Raffaele and Nicola arguing, because I didn’t get enough of that from the first hour of the film.  No, thank you.

The reason I take issue with this is because of the three brothers in the story, I am least intrigued by Raffaele and Nicola, so to watch them constantly bicker was trying.  Furthermore, I am not terrifically interested in politics.  I keep myself informed well enough, but listening to a film tackle Italian politics of three decades ago is one gigantic snore.  No, it was Rocco I was interested in from the start, Rocco who runs a boys’ school for reform with a sense of sad dignity and acceptance.  And who do we get the absolute least of?  ROCCO.  The film is full to the brim of hot-headed Nicola, constantly yelling and smoking and making speeches.  I don’t care.  I don’t care a jot for Nicola.  The film fleshes out Raffaele nicely, making clear that while he believes strongly in the anti-terrorism cases he’s judging, he’s also fearful of the growing urban violence that threatens his own life.  But Rocco… Rocco gets bupkus.  The title of the film ought to be “Two Brothers,” what with the short shrift that’s given to the neglected bro.  But Rocco fascinated me from the beginning.  We get an early focus on him as we watch him wake up in a small, almost clinical bedroom that is then revealed to be adjacent to a large boys’ dormitory.  We watch him handle the cops with respect, yet still be protective of his boys.  He returns to his father’s home and has a slow contemplative walk along a country path followed by a flashback.  I was sold.  This was the brother I wanted to see develop in the film.  But then Rocco practically disappears.  After that point, it’s all – and I do mean ALL – Raffaele and Nicola, Nicola and Raffaele.  When Rocco finally gets his own fantasy, it feels tacked on, as if the director forgot that Rocco was there and realized they should do something to tie up his plot line.  Which made me sad, because I liked him the most and he was given the least attention.  

I will end by adding that I thought the scenes involving Donato and Nicola’s young daughter were rather lovely.  There was a sense of coming full circle here.  Nicola may feel himself permanently disconnected from his childhood home, but there is a sense of hope as we watch little Marta delightedly explore the farm and bond with Donato.  Not everything was doom and gloom. 

Overall, however, I felt frustrated by this movie.  I wanted more of Rocco, but instead got ridiculously huge portions of Raffaele and Nicola.  The fact that there is no clear plot – this is definitely more of a character study – meant I was bored into a bit of a stupor.  I get the languid emotions, the sense of sadness and loss; I felt them but only superficially.  There is good stuff in Three Brothers, but not enough.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10