My Week With Marilyn

Falling in love for ninety minutes

Forget the Mayans: when there comes a generation of boys who don’t fall in love with Marilyn Monroe, that’s when you know the world is truly ending and human sensibilities deteriorating.

My Week With Marilyn is not so much a biopic about Marilyn’s life as it is a slice of Colin Clark’s (if his memoir is to be believed), and a drive-by look at the contrast between how Marilyn was regarded and treated not only in Hollywood, but overseas.  The story follows Clark (Eddie Redmayne) as he takes a chance on becoming third assistant director (a glorified errand boy) for The Prince and the Showgirl, a film which despite being unsuccessful and panned by critics propelled Marilyn and Laurence Olivier (played expertly by Kenneth Branagh) into the heights of their respective careers.  During the shoot, Marilyn is on her honeymoon with new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and being the proverbial “stranger in a strange land,” struggles with the conventions and pressures of Olivier’s world.  Clark attempts to acclimate her into British society, and the two develop what Clark thinks is a blazing romance.  But it isn’t.  We know that.  Marilyn knows that.  She is lonely, afraid, drugged up (not by choice), and sporadically ill, and Clark is the only person who is nice to her.

The film, directed by Simon Curtis, paints a fair picture of Marilyn from the beginning.  Hollywood follows her everywhere.  She is fed pills by assistants who are supposed to be taking care of her, and their only reasoning is that she’s difficult to “control.”  This animal treatment extends to every extremity of her life, from the way her entourage simultaneously parade her around and shield her from the public to the way they cage her in temporary homes with constant surveillance.  Furthermore, they refer to her sweet, jovial personality as an “act.”  But we’re fully convinced.  She doesn’t even seem to know she’s “sexy” until Olivier blurts out on set that her portrayal of Elsie Marina isn’t utilizing her “natural talents.”  These scenes, while beautiful, also hurt.  Here was a woman idealized, abused, and misunderstood by virtually everyone she came into contact with.  Her depressions were misinterpreted as entitlement, her acting methods conflated with confusion.  The phrase “no one else understands you” is spoken to Marilyn by various characters, but they, we must suspect, are farthest from understanding.

Kenneth Branagh shines as Olivier, and is allowed to be a dedicated artist and a commanding boss, but also a bit of a blowhard and a relieving presence.  His feelings about Marilyn transform completely over the course of the film, and less than a month in her presence contorts his life in vicious ways.  Branagh even quotes Shakespeare at one point – he just can’t seem to get away from it.  Also in the supporting cast are Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike; Zoë Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg, Marilyn’s overprotective acting coach who clashes with Olivier in some excellent banter-laced scenes; and Emma Watson (finally ditching Hermione) as Lucy, a young woman working in wardrobe, who begins as Clark’s love interest but turns out to be a backup plan.  Refreshingly, she seems to always be the one calling the shots in her scenes with Redmayne, even in the end.  Scott’s portrayal of Arthur Miller is exactly how you’d think Hollywood people look at writers: frustrated, bothered, weathered in the face, and perpetually grubby.  Who would have known he was about to write The Crucible?

The film’s best sequence is Clark and Marilyn’s first real day together, which begins when Clark, who has been banned from being near Marilyn, is ushered into a car by Marilyn’s bodyguard.  As he sits down, afraid, unsure, and the car begins moving, Marilyn pops out from under a blanket and claims that this is “the getaway car.”  It’s the one scene in which we bear witness to, perhaps, Marilyn’s real personality, free of her caretakers and feeling like she’s having an adventure of her own design.  The scenes that follow rival any romantic film of the year.  The drama is slightly lessened in that we know they don’t end up together, but there is a certain fascination involved: Clark, mistaking infatuation for love, forgets that he’s seven years Marilyn’s junior and that she spoke to him like a child earlier.  The shift in relationship dynamic is staggering, but Clark seems to be the only one who doesn’t see it (of course, later, he must).

The Oscar for Best Actress may already bear the scent of Michelle Williams, the spitting image of Marilyn not only in the film makeup and wig, but even more so in voice and aura.  If she wins for this film, it will be a well-deserved victory for her, but also, considering the material, a victory for Marilyn.

My Week With Marilyn (2011); written by Adrian Hodges; directed by Simon Curtis; starring Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, and Eddie Redmayne. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

And we all fall down

deathlyWouldn’t you know it; the local movie theatre finally developed an organized and professional way to hold midnight premieres for the Harry Potter films, just in time for the final installment in the series.  I guess they can keep the new and improved process in mind when The Hunger Games and whatever other angsty young-adult books are translated into film next.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is, as the title suggests, the second part of a 5-ish-hour film, and believe me, this one feels like the second half of a film.  Director David Yates, in one of his only wise moves in this film, wisely avoids rehashing Part 1 and wasting time.  We get right into the story, with stubbly young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) chatting with the folks he rescued in the previous film and attempting to learn the secrets of two sets of MacGuffins: the Deathly Hallows, mystic objects most people do not believe exist, and therefore, in the realm of movie logic, must exist; and the Horcruxes, objects tainted with dark magic by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), which contain pieces of his soul.  The falling action of the Potter series follows Harry’s mission, along with Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) hunting for a way to destroy Voldemort, as Voldemort’s forces close in on Hogwarts School and prepare to annihilate its inhabitants.

Performance-wise, the film is solid, and as mentioned in my review of Part 1, seeing so many legendary British actors together in one spot is a treat.  As such, the supporting cast is infinitely more interesting than the main trio, as Harry remains stalwart throughout seven (or in the film’s case, eight) stories and never shirks his Boring Hero act.  Rickman as Severus Snape, Fiennes as Voldemort, and Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall steal much of the show here.  The film also features a nice scene with Kelly MacDonald (of Boardwalk Empire fame) as Helena Ravenclaw, a ghost who possesses secrets about one of the final Horcruxes.

Yates’ use of character is not as strong here as it once was, and on some occasions, we really feel as though we’ve missed something.  Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), Tonks (Natalia Tena), Kingsley (George Harris), Bill Weasley (Domhnall Gleeson) and several others are given very limited screen time and not allowed to say much, yet we’re expected to feel sympathy at their deaths (which are mostly unseen), and satisfaction at their killers being brought to justice.  Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) and Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), two of Harry’s more interesting schoolmates, are given plenty to do, and to the film’s credit, it’s nice to see virtually every minor cast member from the last four or five films involved in the defense of Hogwarts, even if they’re just standing there.  Nick Moran, Chris Rankin and a few others reprise their roles, but keep silent, as though they’ve been told not to speak lest the studio have to pay them more if they utter a line.

Yates makes several good choices and slightly more bad ones.  Aside from character issues, little of the actual fighting is shown in the much-anticipated Battle of Hogwarts.  We get snippets of unnamed extras fighting and dying as Harry and the gang run past to their next objective, but little to no fighting footage of any supporting cast members (characters with names) is seen.  I do wonder if there were deleted scenes featuring these characters.  As this movie is shorter than the last one, would it have been so bad to keep the footage in?  Additionally, after the already action-heavy opening third of the film ends, the clever and occasionally well-written dialogue of Part 1 gives way to nonstop action and CG.  Many of the scenes feel rushed, and I felt like I was being asked not-so-politely to simply accept character relationships forged five films ago and not worry about “talking” in this one.  Do filmmakers realize that battle scenes are especially boring when we don’t care about the characters who do the battling?

I would also like to ask David Yates why villains must crumble to pieces or melt when they die.  The heroes are seen bloodied and beaten, sometimes torn apart, while the main bad guys vanish into dust or explode into a gemlike blue substance.  This is not what death looks like.  When Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson) died in the fourth film, there was impact.  Know why?  Because he is cruelly murdered at point blank range, and his lifeless body flops unceremoniously onto the ground, eyes open and lustrous.  We know who, we know why, and it feels real.  The old Wicked Witch death (i.e. melting, crumbling, vanishing into smoke, or otherwise completely transmogrifying) is not an effective portrayal of death if you’re trying to evoke emotional impact, because the audience cannot equate it with anything from real life.  There is nothing to associate the feeling with.  If you’re a big fan of the books and don’t care about any of this, suffice it to say “it didn’t happen in the book,” and have at it.

The strongest section of the film involves revelations about Snape’s past, and Alan Rickman does not shortchange us with his performance, nor does Yates with the time he devotes to these scenes.  There’s a lot to like in the film, particularly the memories sequence, the wonderfully-done special effects (especially the multiplying treasure in the Gringotts vault), and the appropriate level of climax, given what this story has been building up to.  Perhaps the most enjoyable part of a film like this is seeing it in a crowded theatre with an audience who doesn’t know what’s going to happen.  Reactions are golden.

The film, while not the best in the series and far below the best of art, is an experience worth having, and closes out the series with Seinfeldian flair. It’s time to bid these characters farewell, so if you’re a big fan of the series, fret not.  Your life is not over.  There’s a world of amazing books out there, for which these served as barely a warm-up.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2; written by Steve Kloves; directed by David Yates; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Ralph Fiennes.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I

‘allo, beau’iful

Whilst standing in line for David Yates’ second jab at directing the later entries in the Potter film series (Half-Blood Prince), I overheard/eavesdropped on a conversation between two young men, or “bros” to use the parlance of our time.  “They’re making the seventh movie into two?  Why?” one asked.  “Because they’re douchebags” was the other’s response, and it occurred to me that when the average film-goer uses the term “they,” it comes out in a tone just so dismissive that for a moment I wonder whether these folks don’t believe films are put together in one day and delivered to the theatre by the Celluloid Stork.

Now, I would have though the series’ devoted fans would be thrilled that they’re getting more content.  Even at two hours twenty minutes, the first installment of Deathly Hallows feels jam-packed with events, superfluous characters, frustrating loose ends and exhausting sequences of suspense.  Given the source material, however, Yates handles the material well, managing to make it more than a jumbled attempt to correct previous acts of over-zealousness.  We get a veritable A-list of British actors, and despite the fact that most of them have tiny roles (or even cameos in some cases), it’s something of a delight to see John Hurt, Bill Nighy, Warwick Davis, Nick Moran, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Brendan Gleeson, Rhys Ifans, Helena Bonham-Carter, Timothy Spall, Ralph Fiennes and Robbie Coltrane in the same film.  It doesn’t have quite the same effect as Machete‘s ensemble cast, but this is quite a different kettle of fish, isn’t it?

A lot of what holds the film down is, again, the source material.  The seventh story focuses so much on “items” and “fetch-quests” that for a moment you may think you’re rifling through your RPG inventory trying to figure out what half of these baubles are for. Here’s a comprehensive list:

Horcruxes– Seven objects selected by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) which contain a piece of his soul.

Deathly Hallows– Three MacGuffins of massive power that everyone wants.  If you’re keeping score, Harry has two and Voldemort has one.

Broken Piece of Mirror– If you haven’t read the book, put a giant question mark here, because it’s never explained in the film or any before it.  If you have, you’re already angry at me.

Hermione’s Purse– A magic bag which contains…well, everything.  To the director’s credit, this is the first time in a film I’ve seen the classic “bottomless bag” gag used in a scene where it wasn’t the center of a joke.

In the proper tradition of MacGuffins, none of the above items will have any significance by the end of the third act (Part II, which comes out in July).

Finally, in this film, the acting skills of the three leads comes full circle.  Up until the fifth film, the shaky performances of the kids were padded by the slew of excellent actors surrounding them, but this time they’re on their own, and they carry the film well enough.  Rupert Grint’s acting has come the furthest (in the film, at least), and it becomes difficult to stifle chills during a scene in which Ron Weasly lives up to his name and…well, weasels his way out of the Quest.  Emma Watson also steps up to the plate, becoming Harry’s (Daniel Radcliffe) mature guiding hand, and the film doesn’t quite clarify with which of the two strapping young lads she’s in love, especially during some tender moments with Harry in the tent.

The story has all the makings of a young adult fantasy classic: the Quest, a bunch of magical items, amazing spells; as well as the stuff modern youths and fanboys get off to: kids with superpowers, needless love triangles, you know the drill.  The inner soul of the series has always been rather hollow in the sense that, besides the absence of the author’s writing chops, the protagonist never changes.  Harry walks the straight and narrow so consistently throughout seven books that the inevitable victory over unbridled darkness is not only routine, but tiresome.  Rowling throws in a few deaths and maimings of beloved secondary characters for dramatic impact, but most of us aren’t fooled nor distracted.

One of the most striking aspects of the film are the little touches that make it different than the last.  While Half-Blood Prince is a quieter tale about personal discovery and teen angst, this one is told on an epic scale.  For the first time, we see all of Voldemort’s followers in one room.  We see the changes in the Ministry of Magic, whose influences cast a heavy nod in the direction of George Orwell, as the slogan “Magic is Might” looms over a statue of a wizard trampling normal humans (“muggles”).  Pay close attention to the costumes chosen for the footsoldiers of the Ministry – a nod to Nazi Germany?  We also get new characters such as Yaxley (Peter Mullan), who nonchalantly leans back in his chair as “blood traitors” are sentenced to death.  The gorgeous Clémence Poésy returns as Fleur Delacour, who is to marry Ron’s oldest brother, Bill (Domhall Gleeson, son of Brendan), the victim of a werewolf attack, and the choice to have Bill report the news of Mad-Eye’s death is both inspired and startling.  Perhaps my favorite of the additions is Nick Moran, best-known for his role as Eddie in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, as Scabior, a dirty-haired bounty hunter known as a Snatcher.  Moran is not only allowed to retain his amazingly-pleasant-to-listen-to East End accent, but his role is expanded from that of the novel, and in the film it seems that Scabior is the leader of the Snatchers, barking out orders even to savage werewolf Fenrir Greyback (Dave Legeno).  For a moment, I could have sworn I was in the London underworld.

Ultimately, the film succeeds, not only for the fresh-faced teenage girls in hand-me-down robes and five-inches-too-short skirts who attended every midnight premiere and annoyed the hell out of the adults in the middle row who wanted to listen to the dialogue, but also those adults themselves.  The only disclaimer I can put on the film, for those who want full enjoyment, is this: don’t get too wrapped up in the details.  There are unnecessary name-drops and sideplots that are picked up and thrown out faster than sale-price egg salad, but what really matters is the characters, how they’re going to deal with what’s ahead (once they actually figure out what that is), and how the whole journey makes you feel when it’s done.  That said, I believe the end of the franchise is in good hands.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows : Part 1 (2010); written by Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); directed by David Yates; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Ralph Fiennes.

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