Over the weekend I got to enjoy a number of movies. If I could provide some intelligent thoughts to the string of John Wayne movies, I'd write about them, too, but here's what I do have for you:
All About Eve (1950)
One of Hollywood's favorite leading ladies, Bette Davis, saw her career revived by the unexpected success of a movie that explores the pitfalls of fame and ambition. Davis plays Margo Channing, a Broadway star who's just turned forty, and definitely feels it. She's got a comfortable amount of success, but she's not happy. Enter Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter), Margo's biggest fan, who's watched every performance of Aged in Wood and is dying to meet her, and thanks to the playwright's wife, actually does (meet her, not die). Margo has just been talking about how much she hates her fans, but Eve is a breath of fresh air, but she quickly uses Margo's interest to enter a new life, and eventually becomes a star herself. Margo's jealousy and insecurity has nothing on Eve's great popularity, emphasized by the opening scene of her being the youngest recipient of an acting award, an introduction that presents each of the key players in this drama as they're important to Eve's success. This whole movie is like a love letter to the old star system, whether on Broadway or in Hollywood, and remains timeless.
An Affair to Remember (1957)
Like a companion piece to the above film, this is another portrait of Hollywood in a moment of transition. Cary Grant is the star attempting to make a comeback, as an aging lothario everyone falls in love with, though he's only got eyes for Deborah Kerr, though they meet cute when both are in the midst of long-term relationships. They make a famous vow to reunite at the Empire State Building, but Kerr is unable to make it when she's involved in a terrible accident, and Grant has no clue what happened, so when they reunite, it's their greatest test yet. The casualness with which the entire affair unfolds beggars reality, but it's romance for the very fans movies used to adore, affluent and unconcerned with what anyone else thinks, absorbed in their own lives and nearly incapable of how they affect others. In a way, Grant and Kerr are rebelling against that system in the film's conclusion.
Rosario Dawson stars in this movie about the baggage we all carry with us, which can come to define us in ways we never anticipated. She plays a college student reluctant to move beyond a relationship she once enjoyed in high school, which affects her ability to open up to others in the present. She meets a boy at a party and goes home with him, but the evening violently degenerates when he sexually assaults her. Soon she doesn't know what to believe about herself anymore, until she comes to a most unexpected answer about how to resolve the experience. Has she really changed? It's a chilling tale of personal discovery that delves deeply into the psychology of pain, about perceptions and ego and the need for control. At what cost do we attain personal identity?
Based on the play by Shakespeare, this is from Ralph Fiennes and co-stars Gerard Butler as his bitter rival. An allegory about the limits of power, Fiennes is one of those military commanders who believes he's only been doing what's right for his people, but ends up rejected by them and sent into exile. He makes the decision to join forces with Butler and lead an assault on his former homeland. It's not one of the more famous tragedies, but Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan effectively convey the power and immediacy in Shakespeare's words, punctuated by frequent bloody war sequences, as the man reluctant to justify himself but fully convinced of the need for all his questionable actions becomes a martyr. Vanessa Redgrave has a showcase moment as she pleads with Fiennes to show mercy, a speech worthy of any great figure in the Shakespeare canon, though this one belongs to the title character's mother, of all characters. Jessica Chastain, the MVP of 2011, also appears.
Tarsem's third movie (after The Cell and The Fall, a brilliant tragedy in its own right) was considered to be a poor imitation of 300 last year, but it deserves so much more than such an inadequate summary. Like many movies before it, Immortals seeks to understand the motivations of great heroics. Theseus (Henry Cavill, soon to be Superman in Man of Steel) is not so different from Sam Worthington in Clash of the Titans, except he's far more interested in challenging fate, which in this case means mad King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) in his quest to unleash the Titans and thus bring an end to the era of the gods. The gods, naturally, are interested in averting this calamity, though Zeus (Luke Evans) is reluctant to interfere, leaving Theseus to experience a fair amount of tragedy, including the death of his mother by Hyperion's own hand. Phaedra (Freida Pinto) is Theseas's best ally, an oracle who has foreseen the worst, but she gives up her gift thanks to her growing belief in him. This is not a movie you'll understand in the first or second viewing. Tarsem's art direction, always a hallmark of his films, was consciously modeled on the heavy shadows of Caravaggio, and this makes some of the action hard to distinguish, but the resulting effect is to emphasize the great drama of the story. John Hurt is predictably full of earthy gravity as an enigmatic mentor to Theseus, and there's a neat trick involved with this character that helps tie everything together. It's a powerful film that rewards a little patience.