Over the past week, I finally caught up with two undisputed cinema classics, both of which revolve around the world of theater, and neither of them fell short of expectations. The first is this 1950 film from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a film that forgoes much in the way of onstage action in favor of backstage politics. A film like this really comes down to script and the characters, and fortunately All About Eve excels in both those areas. The portrayal of relationships within the theater world is extremely cynical, not very surprising considering the film’s main characters consist of an alcoholic star past her prime, a manipulative up-and-comer, and a dominating critic. The script never shows much in the way of favoritism, letting each one of these compelling personalities have enough screen-time to register.
Most of the attention over the years has gone towards Bette Davis, who sinks her teeth into her role of the aging star Margo Channing with relish, but I found Anne Baxter’s performance as the title character to be equally impressive. An early scene when Eve tells the story of her past initially seems at first a little visually flat due to the decision by Mankiewicz to not embellish her words with any accompanying flashbacks, but Baxter sells it through the intensity and subtly off-putting forthrightness of her performance. Roger Ebert puts it beautifully in his Great Movies review, when he writes of “the girl whose look is a little too intense, whose eyes a little too focused, whose modesty is somehow suspect.” Along with those two, you also have George Sanders stealing every scene he’s in as the theater critic Addison DeWitt, in a performance that won him an Oscar. He ends up as the most sinister presence in the film, a man who knows he has power and uses it to control the fates of any rising talent. Perhaps the film’s best achievement is being able to juggle everyone around without anyone coming off as neglected and underused. Hell, there’s even enough room made for an early Marilyn Monroe performance, who comes in briefly as the current object of DeWitt’s fascination. It’s not a short film by any means, but the time flies by and you feel at the end you could have spent even longer in the company of these characters. 10/10.
The second theater-related classic I watched in the past week is this 1945 effort from director Marcel Carné, considered to be one of the greatest French films ever made. The film has a history of being compared with Gone With The Wind, and indeed both films have an epic sweep to them that few films have ever come close to replicating. But where that film dealt more with the roles of wealthy Southerners during wartime, this film focuses mainly on entertainers living in poverty and struggling to get by. Set in the Boulevard of Crime, the film follows these eclectic characters, mostly performers and criminals, and the relationships that emerge between them, usually revolving around the beautiful and enigmatic Garance (played by French icon Arletty), with four men competing for her attention. The narrative is essentially melodrama, albeit very effective melodrama, with characters you care end up caring about and wishing for their success. But what really separates the film from the pack is the direction. Much of the time in this 190-minute epic is spent watching onstage performances, and a common theme throughout the film is how the onstage and offstage personas often intersect with each other. There are many wonderful moments throughout the film when a performance will be interrupted by something offstage, breaking the illusion the performer is trying to create.
Any mention of the film would not be complete with relating a little bit the circumstances under which it was made. Working under Nazi influence in occupied France, Carne was forced to work under extremely limited circumstances, with the production team constantly running low on supplies and film. Both resistance members and Nazi sympathizers served as extras. A couple members of the production team were Jewish and had to keep their identities a secret. Apart from all the production issues, the Vichy administrations forbid the release of a film over 90 minutes, so Carne split the film into two parts, titled Boulevard Of Crime and The Man In White, and showed them separately in theaters. It’s unbelievable that the film was able to get made at all, but even without knowing any of the back-story, it’s easy to be impressed with how smoothly everything gels together. Definitely a film that completely warrants its status as an all-time classic. 10/10.
The latest effort from Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle had been sitting on the shelf for a little while. Normally a delayed release signals a lack of confidence from the studios in a film’s quality, but the circumstances surrounding Boyle’s film are different. After a series of casting changes, principal photography was completed back in 2011 before Boyle went off to handle Olympic opening ceremony duties, and when all that was done he came back to finish up post-production. Still, even though the film had a perfectly legitimate reason for sitting on the shelf awhile, some of the negative associations with normal delayed releases unfortunately ring true here as well. It’s a film that was more than likely green-lighted based on the success of Inception, a stylish, sexy crime thriller that uses dreams and memory as its core narrative hooks. But apart from a couple genuinely bizarre and memorable story elements (including a fairly extraordinary nude scene from Rosario Dawson that seems to come out of nowhere), most of the material in the film consists of riffs on ideas done better elsewhere.
Still though, the film is fun enough for the first hour, in its own inconsequential way. But what initially starts as a jaunty and cheerfully-violent venture eventually morphs into a kind of sub-Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind expose on the memories of a fractured relationship, and when this shift into darker territory occurs it sort of takes the wind out of the film’s sails. It’s interesting to watch as the script constantly subverts your feelings towards each character (Vincent Cassel plays his usual skuzzy criminal role, but he actually garners the most sympathy as events progress), but in the end it’s all just a little too exhausting for not much in the way of a payoff. In some ways, it feels like the work of a younger, less confident filmmaker, instead of an established name with several noteworthy titles to their credit. Fans of the director should find enough material of interest in the film, but it’s tough to shake the feeling it’s nothing more than a bridge between more worthwhile efforts. 4/10.
Brit Marling is one of the more interesting news names in independent film at the moment. She made a big breakthrough in 2011 at the Sundance film festival with two films she both starred in and co-wrote, the somewhat-noodly, vaguely sci-fi drama, Another Earth, and this somewhat-noodly, vaguely sci-fi drama, Sound Of My Voice. Both films use subtle sci-fi elements as extra flavoring to stories of people attempting to cope with past tragedy. In the former film, Marling played a young woman who was responsible for the deaths of a mother and child in a car accident, and who attempts to reconnect with the grieving father, while an alternate version of the Earth hovers above them. In this film, she plays a cult leader who claims to be from the future, while two documentarians, one of whom has a tragedy in his past linked to cult obsession, infiltrate the ranks to expose her true nature.
In its best moments, Sound Of My Voice reminded me of recent films like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Kill List, films that slowly and subtly built atmospheres of uneasy horror. This one is a little less successful, in part because it has a little bit of a hard time connecting all the pieces together in a way that is successful. The film consistently jumps about awkwardly in tone. The scenes within the cult can be quietly unsettling, but they can also be somewhat comic, or sometimes a mixture of both at the same time, particularly in a scene that makes memorable use of the song ‘Dreams’ by the Cranberries. An over-elaborate handshake initiation also dissolves much of the potential tension, but it ends up playing a crucial role in the endgame. Speaking of the ending, it’s one of those finales that changes the perspective of everything that has come before, but like the rest of the film, it comes and goes too quickly to really register as anything substantial. At under 90 minutes, the film could have used extra time to give everything more weight; instead, it all feels more like a rough sketch of an idea rather than a fully-realized piece. 6/10.