My Week With Marilyn


Beauty personified.

Beauty personified.

(2011) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Dougray Scott, Zoe Wanamaker, Emma Watson, Toby Jones, Phillip Jackson, Geraldine Somerville, Derek Jacobi, Dominic Cooper, Simon Russell Beale, Pip Torrens, Michael Kitchen, Miranda Raison, Karl Moffatt, Robert Portal. Directed by Simon Curtis

In 1957, American icon Marilyn Monroe flew to London to begin work on a movie directed by the legendary actor Sir Laurence Olivier. With husband and playwright Arthur Miller in tow and an entourage that included acting coach Paula Strasberg, she made a sensation in England but her tardiness on-set, difficulty remembering her lines and feuds with Olivier and cameraman Jack Cardiff created a chaotic environment that has become legendary in Hollywood.

Colin Clark (Redmayne) remembers it differently however. Hired out of Eton College by Olivier (Branagh) at the insistence of Vivien Leigh (Ormond), then Olivier’s wife, he was Olivier’s on-set Boy Friday, impressing the great actor by not only procuring a house for the Americans to stay in during shooting but a second back-up house when the British press discovered the location of the first.

His view of Marilyn (Williams) was much kinder. He saw a woman tormented by the demands of fame, insecure about her abilities as an actress and humiliated by Miller’s (Scott) new play which seems to take some very personal jabs at her. With only Clark and actress Dame Sylvia Thorndike (Dench) in her corner, she finds going to work on the set to be nearly intolerable.

Her only solace comes from Colin, who squires her about England and with whom she develops a sort-of romantic relationship with, much to the chagrin of Lucy (Watson), a costume assistant whom he is dating. He is warned that she will break his heart but he is heedless; what man of that era wouldn’t want to be involved with Marilyn Monroe? However, those who surround her and who are vested in protecting her image may not necessarily be sanguine about his relationship with her.

This is what I call a quasi-true story. It is true that Monroe worked in London on The Princess and the Showgirl and had the difficulties spoken of earlier. However, this film is based on the diaries of Clark who did also work on the film but the depth of the relationship with Monroe that he claimed has never been corroborated. That aspect of the drama must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

However, there is nothing “quasi” about the performance of Michelle Williams as Monroe. Justifiably lauded with a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination, she captures the late icon’s sexiness, public vivaciousness, vulnerability, insecurities and innate sweetness that made a generation obsessed with her. It is easy to see in fact why we are still obsessed with her today. Williams has developed into one of the most compelling actresses in Hollywood and to my mind is the most likely bet to succeed Meryl Streep as the best actress in Hollywood. This performance is a good reason why I think so.

The good performances don’t end there. Branagh, a great actor in his own right, delivers one of his finest performances in a decade. Dench is always solid if not terrific; here she is the latter. Redmayne delivers a warmth in his character which while appealing isn’t enough to be the center of the film; it makes one wish for more concentration on Marilyn which sort of defeats the purpose – it’s not My Week with Colin after all.

Like many British films, this is exceedingly well-acted and well-written. While it doesn’t have the oomph or the fireworks to really attract an American audience, it is still one of those movies that gives a whole lot of enjoyment more than it does insight.

WHY RENT THIS: Marvelous performance by Williams. Supporting cast superb.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Clark, who is the center of the film, is much less interesting than Monroe.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of foul language, some sexual situations and some suggested nudity..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The re-enactments of The Princess and the Showgirl were filmed on the very same soundstage where the original was filmed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed. Sadly, Weinstein missed an opportunity to explore that period of Monroe’s life with a featurette – surely there was plenty of archival footage of Monroe in London during that period.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.1M on a $10 production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Being Sellers

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Elysium

Advertisements

The East


All signs point to The East.

All signs point to The East.

(2013) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hilary Baack, Jason Ritter, Julia Ormond, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Magnussen, Wilbur Fitzgerald, John Neisler, Pamela Roylance, Ryan Grego, Ava Bogle, Nick Fuhrmann, Patricia French. Directed by Zal Batmanglij

How difficult is it to uphold the law when the law protects the strong and harms the weak? Are you doing the right thing then by enforcing the law – or are you part of a system that preys on those who don’t have the cash?

Jane (Marling) is a former FBI agent now working for the private security intelligence firm Hiller Brood, hired by corporate clients to protect their executives from harm. Of late, a radical eco-terrorist group calling itself The East has been targeting bigwigs at Big Oil, flooding the home of an oil company CEO with crude oil after his company flooded the gulf with the same stuff.

Sharon (Clarkson), her steely boss, picks Jane to go undercover and infiltrate The East to discover who their targets are and what they plan to do with them. Adopting the name of Sarah, she goes cross-country hanging out with free spirits and counterculture types, engaging in freeganism (the practice of eating discarded food, what some call dumpster diving). She hops trains with a group of them including one suspect she thinks might have ties to the organization but he turns out to be a red herring. However, a different member of that group – Luca (Fernandez) turns out to be the real deal and after Sarah is injured protecting him from railroad bulls he takes her to the safe house of his group to let Doc (Kebbell) take a look at her.

Doc isn’t what he used to be – an adverse reaction to a drug meant to protect him and his sister, both working for a Doctors Without Borders-like organization, from dysentery has left him prone to seizures and extreme muscle tremors. Despite the suspicions of Izzy (Page), one of the other members, she is accepted into the group and captures the eye of Benji (Skarsgard), the de facto leader of a group which claims to have no leaders – call him the first among equals then.

As the group continues to exact revenge on corporate bigwigs whose crimes have gone unpunished by the justice system, Jane/Sarah begins to become conflicted and questions whether she’s batting for the right team.

I really like the moral ambiguity here. This is a film that asks the question does the ends justify the means when the system is broken? That’s a question that’s deceptively difficult to answer. In a system rigged to prevent justice when the super-wealthy are involved, how does one achieve justice particularly when you’re a part of the system? There are no easy answers.

Kudos to Marling and Batmanglij who don’t give the audience any easy outs. Benji and his brood have their own issues and motivations and they aren’t the “pure-at-heart” anarchists that liberal Hollywood sometimes likes to parade as heroes taking on the evil capitalists, nor do all of the CEOs here come off as money-grubbing monsters who are willing to trade human lives for an extra billion they couldn’t possibly spend. Obviously their hearts lie with the anarchists but some of the actions they take are troubling.

Marling, a cool blonde who 60 years ago would have made a perfect Hitchcock female lead, is rapidly becoming one of the independent scene’s best actresses. She’s smart and takes smart roles. Her character undergoes a metamorphosis – from a Christian rock, prayerful and ambitious security agent to a radical leftist spouting freeganism and anarchy. Now, I’m not saying such a change isn’t possible but it does seem to be a rather extreme conversion. Skarsgard, who has become a heartthrob on True Blood, shows that he will make an easy transition to the big screen when that series ends if he chooses to.

On the minus side, there are some plot holes. For example, considering how secretive the group is, Jane/Sarah finds them awfully quickly. One would think if it were that easy to find them, some law enforcement agency would have located them first. Secondly, if the dysentery inoculation caused such serious side effects for such a great percentage of those who took it, a) someone would have noticed and pulled the drug from the marketplace, b) the company that was marketing it would likely never have put it in the marketplace to begin with fearing the class action lawsuits that would surely have followed and c), the Pentagon wouldn’t have signed a contract to give their soldiers a drug that would have debilitated them to the point where they were not only no longer useful as fighting men and women but also would require extensive care for the rest of their lives.

However, these things aside, the writing is pretty dang smart and keeps the tension level high throughout. Certainly one’s political leanings will color your appreciation of the film; liberal sorts will applaud the idea of those perpetrating injustices upon the environment and people getting a taste of their own medicine while conservatives might see this as a self-righteous throwback hippie Che Guevara-fest from the ’60s. Neither viewpoint is wrong, by the way.

REASONS TO GO: Raises some timely questions. Taut and suspenseful.

REASONS TO STAY: Politically self-righteous. A few plot holes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Most of the themes here are pretty adult in nature. There is some violence, some sexuality, quite a bit of foul language and some partial nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marling and Batmanglij, who co-wrote the screenplay, based it on their experiences in the summer of 2009 practicing freeganism and joining an anarchist collective.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; this one got some pretty solid reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle in Seattle

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: R.I.P.D.

Surveillance


Surveillance

Can you tell these two are federal agents?

(2008) Crime Thriller (Magnet) Bill Pullman, Julia Ormond, French Stewart, Pell James, Ryan Simpkins, Michael Ironside, Kent Harper, Cheri Oteri, Anita Smith, Mac Miller. Directed by Jennifer Chambers Lynch

Life is a matter of perception. What we see, what we experience, is filtered through our own realities. Often, our own personal realities color what we see and experience and so the reality changes, each according to their own flavor.

A brutal murder takes place on a desolate  road in the middle of nowhere. Captain Billings (Ironside) of the local police wants it solved, especially since it involved police officers being filleted. And then in walks Agents Hallaway (Pullman) and Anderson (Ormond), who believe it to be the work of a serial killer they’ve been chasing.

We see what happened through the eyes of three sets of witnesses; a couple of junkies (James, Miller), a family on a road trip vacation (Oteri, Simpkins) and two corrupt and brutal cops (Stewart, Harper). The interrogation takes place in one room while Hallaway watches via closed circuit TV in another. The clues to the masked killers begin to add up and an unpleasant truth begins to get formed.

It took 13 years for Lynch (daughter of David Lynch, auteur of Blue Velvet and “Twin Peaks”) to make her second film after making Boxing Helena, a 1993 gusher about a surgeon who amputates a girlfriend’s arms and legs in order to keep her close by. I’m thinking that she has a very different idea about love and obsession than most of the rest of us.

There is a good deal of violence and brutality here. The camera doesn’t shy from the more sadistic elements of the crime, nor is there any sort of feeling that the filmmaker is either apologizing for the sadism, nor is she reveling in it. It merely is as a matter of course.

There are some fine actors here, including Ormond who is an actress who should have been a huge star; she’s incredibly beautiful and incredibly talented, but for whatever reason, audiences never warmed to her and she never got the roles she should have. Pullman is one of the more likable actors in Hollywood, but here he seems to be involved in a twitch-a-thon, going as over the top as he can. In that sense, he is the most noticeable member of the cast here and so by default, all eyes are drawn to him throughout.

Part of the problem here is that the movie takes a certain course for the first two thirds of the film and then it veers off. While I’m not opposed to that in most cases, it’s almost like watching someone who is calm and collected suddenly turn into a gibbering lunatic before your very eyes in this case. It’s kind of off-putting, especially since aspects of the movie are so unsettling to begin with. It’s definitely a dive into the deep end, if you discovered raw sewage leaking into it. There is a twist at the end but quite frankly it doesn’t come as much of a surprise, for those who are regular moviegoers at least.

Certain filmmakers have a style which doesn’t shy from the darker aspects of life. Jennifer Lynch is one; her father is another. Is it genetic? Doesn’t matter in the least. Sometimes watching movies in that vein can be difficult; it’s like identifying the body of a loved one in the morgue with a coroner who can’t stop gigging.

There are some things here worth checking out; there are also things here that are going to drive you crazy. Whatever the case may be, you won’t walk away from this with a lukewarm feeling. Love it or hate it, Surveillance is going to get a strong reaction from you.

WHY RENT THIS: I like the Rashomon style of storytelling. Pullman is at his quirky best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some might find this too sadistic. Ending is a bit too muddled.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brutal violence, kinky sex, a little bit of drug use and more than enough foul language to make this a definite hard “R.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lynch was the first woman to win the Best Director Prize at the New York Horror Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.14M on an unreported production budget; the film probably broke even or even made some money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Green Hornet

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Daisy dances her way through life.

(Paramount) Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Elle Fanning. Directed by David Fincher

One of the constants of our lives is time. It follows a preset course in our perception; we are born, we grow up, we grow old, we die. There is a certain comfort in knowing how that progression will go. However, what if time wasn’t a constant for us all?

Benjamin Button (Pitt), like a modern-day Merlin, doesn’t age; he youthens. He was born an old man in turn of the century New Orleans; his father Thomas (Flemyng), overwhelmed by the death of his wife in childbirth and the double whammy of a peculiar child to boot, leaves him at a home for the aged, to be cared for by Queenie (Henson), a woman with a gigantic heart.

From there on we watch the events of the 20th century through Benjamin’s eyes; also his love affairs with the wife of a Russian diplomat (Swinton) and the love of his life, Daisy (Blanchett) with whom he had more or less grown up with in the home (she was a regular visitor to her grandmother). Daisy becomes a dancer who…well, that would be telling.

Fincher, one of the more innovative directors of our generation, has crafted a movie with astonishing special effects. Not every special effect has to be of aliens and spaceships, y’know. Here, the aging and de-aging of Pitt is mostly done as computer generated imagery, and quite frankly is done so seamlessly that you never believe for a second that it isn’t organic.

There are also some incredible performances here. Pitt does some of the best work of his career as Benjamin, displaying a child-like innocence that is coupled with deep sadness. Button knows his affliction will make him an outsider in life, and so that is what he becomes, someone separate from life, essentially observing but not taking part in so much.

Blanchett is one of the premiere actresses working today, and this is yet another outstanding performance for her resume (she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for her work, but she easily could have). I’m not sure if Blanchett ever took ballet as a child, but she moves with the lithe grace of a dancer.

Some critics, including a few that I respect very much, complained that the movie wasn’t true to itself and that it was essentially empty at its core. There is some evidence that the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that inspired the script was written essentially as an exercise but I think that it does make for a fascinating what-if.

What we are dealing with here is the ultimate outsider, someone who violated the laws of nature and the consequences of that violation (even if it is involuntary) are devastating. Benjamin Button knows what his affliction costs him; he will not receive the things in life he desires most. That would make anyone a little bitter. Still, he gains a unique perspective not because of any intellectual difference but simply because of the way others treat him.

The framing sequences take place during Katrina and involve Daisy’s daughter (Ormond) reading to her dying mother from Benjamin’s journal and a backwards running clock created by an eccentric clockmaker (Koteas) in 19th century New Orleans.

There are some amusing bits, including one concerning a man who is struck by lightning multiple times, and some poignant scenes as well – such as Daisy caring for the now-infant Benjamin at the end of his life. Parallels to the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease are certainly at the forefront in my mind as I watch these sequences.

I will say this for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; it is like no other movie I’ve ever seen before and am unlikely to again. In that sense, this is worth seeing just because of its uniqueness; the character of Benjamin Button will stay with you long after the movie is over.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing special effects and powerful performances from Blanchett and Pitt (the best work of his career to date) make this a must-see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little gimmicky in places, with actual historic figures interacting with Benjamin a la Forrest Gump.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality here as well as a sprinkling of bad language. There are a couple of violent scenes that may be disturbing to sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the action in the Fitzgerald story took place in Baltimore, the locale for the movie was switched to New Orleans in order to take advantage of tax benefits offered by the Louisiana Film Commission in the wake of Katrina; also the Daisy character was named Hildegarde Moncrief in the original story; her name was switched in honor of The Great Gatsby.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While essentially a making-of featurette, the one on the Criterion collection version is so thorough and exhaustive it literally blows every other making-of featurette on every other DVD or Blu-Ray right out of the water. Entitled The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button, it divides the material into three trimesters and a birth and includes nearly three hours of material on nearly every aspect of the production.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $333.9M on a $150M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps