Monthly Archives: October 2011

My Week with Marilyn (2011)

Simon Curtis’s My Week With Marilyn premiered tonight at the New York Film Festival and was greeted with thunderous applause.  This thoroughly delightful film boasts a pedigreed cast including Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne (a Tony winner for Red), Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper, Julia Ormond, and Emma Watson.  Based on a memoir and journals by Colin Clark, it follows the shooting of 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl, on which Clark was the 3rd A.D.

I admit to being a big fan of Marilyn Monroe.  Some Like It Hot was one of my early movie memories, and every time I watch it I fall in love with her all over again.  Her story is also extremely interesting in examining issues of the self, persona, and constructed femininity.  The Marilyn Monroe persona was created by both Norma Jean Mortenson and the Hollywood machine, and I used to always wonder how the real woman felt when she was just being “herself.”

This film attempts to answer that question: who was the “real” Marilyn?  Was it the lost little girl who wanted to be rescued by Colin Clark?  Was it the giddy small-town girl with a sad past?  Or was it the insufferable diva who binged on pills and liquor and showed up late to every call?  By the end of the film, we get the sense that no one really knows – when Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) says, “she doesn’t know who [the character] is,” it is clear that this also refers to Marilyn herself.  Even she doesn’t know who she is.

Much has been made of Michelle Williams’s makeover for this film.  The costuming and makeup are fantastic – Marilyn’s inimitable hips are seamlessly reconstructed on top of Ms. Williams’s petite frame.  Her performance, however, is the real transformation.  Although her features are so different, whenever she moves or looks a certain way or delivers a line, Marilyn is there.  In a performance far beyond simple mimicry, she gives off that same luminous quality that made Marilyn so famous and irresistible.

The rest of the cast is excellent as well.  Kenneth Branagh, a longtime favorite of mine, gives a delightfully witty portrayal of Laurence Olivier.  Never has Olivier’s speech sounded so affected as when it comes out of Branagh’s mouth.  Eddie Redmayne is the ultimate in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as Colin Clark, giving off just enough gravitas to be believable in a 23-year-old.  Finally, Dame Judi Dench is wonderful in a small role as the older co-star who tries to give Marilyn some confidence.

This crowd-pleaser of a film caters to the pop culture buffs in us all.  Yes, the script smacks too much of hindsight at times, but it addresses Marilyn’s case in a perceptive, meditative manner.  My Week with Marilyn treats its subject as the complex, confused person and actress that she was, rather than “the best piece of ass in the world,” as her publicist calls her.  At one point, Marilyn asks, “Shall I be her?” and we know exactly what she means.

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Melancholia (2011)

Last night’s NYFF screening was Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which I’ve been eagerly anticipating since it debuted at Cannes (and not because of his ridiculous Nazi comments).  While not a perfect film by any means, Melancholia is beautiful and mesmerizing.  Clocking in at over two hours, it’s definitely a draining experience, but it’s meant to be; the end of the world should be devastating.

The film follows a young woman named Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her family as the earth is approached by a recently-discovered planet that has been hiding behind the sun.  Like most of von Trier’s films, it’s divided into sections.  The first major section (after the prologue) portrays Justine’s wedding reception.  She has just married a sweet, not-too-bright man named Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and, although everything seems fine at first, we slowly begin to get the sense that all is not well with her.  Her smiles are a bit too bright, her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a bit too worried, and her new husband is trying a bit too hard.  The shaky, handheld camera in this sequence jumps around from guest to guest, nervously looking back and forth between Justine and Michael as if the camera itself is hoping everything is going to work out.

I won’t spoil things by going into what the second part entails, but the major problem with the film is a marked difference in tone and pacing between the two parts.  They feel almost like separate films, two mood pieces that happen to be about the same people.  That said, however, both sections are beautiful in different ways, and they are tied together formally and thematically by the prologue.  Filmed in extreme slow-motion so that the shots look almost still, the prologue is one of the highlights of the movie.  Each shot takes your breath away with its rich colors and compositions that echo famous paintings (one of which is the poster above). Here’s an example, although the colors in this still don’t do the shot justice:

Shot compositions like these kept the film utterly mesmerizing, despite its uneven pacing and disparate sections.

Performance-wise, Melancholia is impeccable.  Kirsten Dunst gives the most subtle performance of her career, using minute changes in her facial muscles to slowly betray her creeping depression.  Charlotte Gainsbourg, as her long-suffering, slightly neurotic sister, is both soulful and brittle.  You sense she has been weathered down to the bone by her trying sister and arrogant husband, played with a touch of dry humor by Kiefer Sutherland.  As Michael, Alexander Skarsgard is the exact opposite of his True Blood avatar, Eric Northman.  He is awkward and utterly sweet, trying desperately to make Justine happy, and Skarsgard makes him completely believable.  His father, Stellan Skarsgard, gives an amusing performance himself as Justine’s obnoxious boss.  The cast is rounded out by John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, and Jesper Christensen (the “Surgeon of Birkenau” in The Debt).

In the end, Melancholia left me feeling drained and awed by the power of its images, many of which are still haunting me a day later.  It has its problems, but it’s the most beautiful apocalypse any of us is likely to see.

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A Dangerous Method (2011)

When director David Cronenberg introduced A Dangerous Method at the NYFF tonight (accompanied by the wonderful Michael Fassbender), he implied that the film is very different from his earlier work.  It is true that this most recent effort does not contain mutant babies or twin gynecologists, and it lacks the visual flair of his usual films.  It is, however, clearly a Cronenberg film as far as subject matter goes.  Its exploration of the darker side of human nature and the visceral urges we attempt to repress fits in perfectly with his previous work.

The film follows Dr. Carl Jung (Mr. Fassbender) and his relationships with a masochistic patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).  The small cast is uniformly excellent.  I have always been anti-Keira Knightley, but her performance here is surprisingly good.  Her reed-like, fragile physique and wide eyes make her the perfect image of a broken, battered child who, over the course of the film, gradually composes herself but refuses to soften.  The character is all hard edges, demanding and incisive in her ability to read human behavior.  Despite the fact that she is the masochist, you get the sense that she is the one who holds the power over Jung, not vice versa.

Jung’s relationship with Freud is similarly fraught.  Beginning as a mentoring relationship, it eventually turns into a battle for the future of psychoanalysis.  No matter what the viewer may think about Freud and Jung’s theories (I have my problems with them, of course), their discussions over the course of the film are gripping and genuinely thought-provoking.  A Dangerous Method is, appropriately, a very talky film, but the content and performances kept me interested.  Mr. Fassbender employs his subtle, visceral style to make Jung the slowly-crumbling center of the film.  He is on camera almost the entire time, making every small change in his facial expressions and body posture count.  Viggo Mortensen, an old favorite of mine who has been doing excellent work with Cronenberg over the last decade, brings a dry wit and quiet consideration to Freud.  The character could have so easily become cartoonish, with his perpetual cigar and prosthetic nose, but Mortensen makes him an intriguing and humble intellectual presence.

Alongside the more obvious discussion of human sexuality and psychology, the film also tackles issues of class and religion.  Spielrein and Freud are both Jews, while Jung is Protestant.  Freud is from a lower class and lives in a cramped apartment with his six children, while Jung’s wife is incredibly wealthy and he lives in a country house with his own sailboat.  These differences create a quiet tension that suffuses the characters’ interactions and lends an extra edge to Jung and Freud’s disagreements.  The implications of these differences become very clear in the end titles, which I will not spoil for you.  Suffice it to say, World War II played its part in these characters’ lives.

A Dangerous Method is thought-provoking and well-executed, if mainstream for a man of Cronenberg’s eccentricity.  The dialed-down style makes for a visually bland experience, but in a way it is appropriate for the subject matter.  Just like in Jung himself, all the darker elements lie beneath the surface.

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Ben-Hur (1959) – The New Print

So, I’ve decided to blog about everything I see at the New York Film Festival this year.  I have tickets to a bunch of exciting screenings, so it’s going to be cool.  To start the festival off this year, a couple of friends and I went to see the new 8K restoration of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), one of only three films to win 11 Academy Awards (I used to be an Oscars nerd).  I’d seen Ben-Hur back when I was around 13, so I didn’t remember much of it.  Here are my impressions upon this viewing:

– First of all, the new print is absolutely BEAUTIFUL.  It’s a shame it isn’t being shown on big screens across the country, because I was simply amazed at how clear and bright the image was, and I think this is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen to get the full effect.  I’d honestly never been that into the famous chariot scene before this, but on the big screen, it was simply breathtaking.  My heart was in my throat the whole time, and the sound of the racing hooves was wonderfully intense.

– I never get over how obvious the homoerotic undertones are between Judah and Messala.  I love the story, famously told by Gore Vidal in The Celluloid Closet (1995), about how he wanted to inject more dramatic tension into the film, so he and William Wyler decided that Messala would be in love with Judah.  They purposely neglected to tell Charlton Heston about this, however, so Stephen Boyd is acting his socks off the entire time, looking at Judah with puppy dog eyes for the whole first section of the movie.  Then, of course, there’s the spear-throwing moment (nice phallic symbolism there), and the toast:

Not homoerotic at all...

Ben-Hur is, of course, subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” and the film handles this element with mixed success.  It opens with the birth of Christ, which we assume is also around the same time Judah is born.  For most of the film, Judah’s story intersects with Christ’s only sporadically.  First, when Judah is on a chain gang struggling across the desert, a mysterious man gives him a drink of water.  Christ’s face is never shown on film, which I find very effective.  Instead, we only see people’s reactions to him, which I feel makes his presence more powerful than it would if we actually saw the actor.  (Note: I am an atheist myself, but I find the Bible interesting as mythology/folklore) Periodically, someone in the film will mention “the young rabbi from Nazareth” to Judah, talking about his ideas, and Judah’s love interest winds up being present for the Sermon on the Mount.  In the end, however, the film spends too much time on the Passion.  After Judah settles his score with Messala, there is a full hour of the film left, and it is mostly taken up by relatively graphic depictions of the Passion and the Crucifixion.  As my friend Maggie said, “Is this movie about Ben-Hur anymore?”  Suffice it to say the film loses its way in the resolution – the effect would have been the same with much less time spent on Christ and lepers.

– Something I found odd in this viewing was that the pacing was actually very uneven.  Some scenes took way longer than they should have, with beats being drawn out too long between lines and people giving essentially the same reaction multiple times.  (Prison guard 1: “Lepers!” Prison guard 2, two minute later: “Lepers!”)  On the flip side, there were storylines where necessary scenes were totally elided.  My friend was confused by how quickly Judah and the Roman Quintus Arrias went from “We grudgingly respect each other” to “We’re father and son!  Hooray!”  The editing definitely could have been improved.

– I love the sequence on the slave galley for some reason.  Maybe it’s because I used to row…or because Charlton Heston has his shirt off.

–  Ben-Hur is not really a good film for female characters.  Esther, though she has some sense of agency, is mainly just irritating, while Miriam and Tirzah seem to exist to be rescued.  This one’s definitely about the boys.

The screening itself:

– For much of the first half of the film, the sound was significantly off.  The projectionist at Lincoln Center had to actually restart the system.  It was very distracting.

– At the beginning, William Wyler’s daughter and Charlton Heston’s son introduced the film.  The were upstaged by William Wyler’s great-grandchildren dressed in gladiator/toga costumes, made by the Ben-Hur costume department back when it was being shot.  It was ridiculously adorable.

All in all, Ben-Hur is definitely worth a watch.  It has some fantastic sequences and definitely holds your interest for the first two thirds.  In the future, I’ll probably just stop watching after the chariot scene.

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