My Week with Marilyn

Posted on December 1, 2011 at 6:00 pm

“Her skin does not reject the light.”

That was impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir’s answer when asked why he used one favorite model so many times.  And it describes the luminous beauty of Marilyn Monroe, who almost half a century since her death still stands as the ultimate screen goddess.  “I have an Aunt Minnie back in Vienna who would show up on time and know her lines, but who would pay to see my Aunt Minnie?”  That was what director Billy Wilder said to Monroe’s frustrated co-stars in “Some Like It Hot,” when he told them that they had to be perfect in every take because he was going to use whichever one happened to capture her getting it right. That was Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean Mortenson, the daughter of a mentally unstable woman, raised in foster homes, married for the first time at age 16, later an international superstar, married to the biggest athlete in the country (baseball hero Joe DiMaggio) and then to one of the most distinguished literary figures in the world (playwright Arthur Miller), and dead by an overdose of pills at age 36.

Shortly after she married Miller, Monroe went to England to make a film called “The Prince and the Showgirl” with Sir Laurence Olivier, who also directed.  She was not only the movie’s star; in an effort to demonstrate her ability and depth she had formed her own production company and was studying method acting with Lee Strasberg.  Colin Clark, who was third assistant director (a gofer) on the film, wrote not one but two memoirs of his experience, including The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me: Six Months on the Set With Marilyn and Olivier, which inspired this film, with Michelle Williams as Monroe and Kenneth Branagh as Olivier.

Even the radiant Williams will never be able to match Monroe as a screen presence.  But her performance is thoughtful, nuanced, complex, and magnetically compelling, like Monroe herself.  While it is the slightest of stories — an inexperienced and insecure young man is dazzled by Monroe who briefly makes him think he can rescue her — it is an improvement over the typical biopic.  Williams captures Monroe’s mercurial, even prismatic nature, her strength and her vulnerability, and especially her understanding of her own appeal.  “Should I be her?” she asks almost mischievously, with a sense of fun in being able to demonstrate how Norma Jean can turn herself into Marilyn and back again.  But her reasons for letting a young gofer “accidentally” see her naked are more complicated.  She is under enormous pressure and desperate for the kind of respect no one is willing to give her.  Her third marriage is falling apart.  She has a pattern of asking men to save her and then testing them beyond their ability.  Like Rita Hayworth, who famously said that men went to bed with Gilda (her sultriest role) and woke up with her, Monroe is the victim of a kind of Catch-22.  She wants to be loved for herself but has spent too many years being “her” and is not willing to risk being less effective.  When she says (while skinny-dipping with Clark) that men in Hollywood are so old, it conveys a great deal about the price she paid for her absent father and need for fame.

Monroe had more than met the eye.  This movie has less, but what it does have is highly watchable for Williams’ performance and a juicy turn by Dame Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike and for, I hope, inspiring watchers to return to the original, Monroe herself.



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Based on a book Based on a true story Biography Date movie Drama Romance

World AIDS Day

Posted on December 1, 2011 at 4:34 pm

In observance of World AIDS Day, I recommend these films:

Longtime Companion The first feature film to address the AIDS epidemic is this wrenching story of love and loss with beautiful performances from Campbell Scott, Bruce Davison, and Mary-Louise Parker.

And the Band Played On HBO’s drama with an all-star cast is based on the true story of the early days of the epidemic, the heroic public health officials and tragic mistakes.

Philadelphia Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his portrayal of a lawyer who sued the law firm that fired him for having AIDS, based on a true story.

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For Your Netflix Queue

National Board of Review Picks “Hugo,” Clooney, Swinton

Posted on December 1, 2011 at 4:18 pm

The National Board of Review announced their awards for 2011.  I’m especially pleased for the recognition for “Margin Call,” Christopher Plummer’s performance in “Beginners,” and the excellent documentary “Crime After Crime.”

Best Film: Hugo

Best Director: Martin Scorsese, Hugo

Best Actor: George Clooney, The Descendants

Best Actress: Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Best Supporting Actress: Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

Best Original Screenplay: Will Reiser, 50/50

Best Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash

Best Animated Feature: Rango

Breakthrough Performance: Felicity Jones, Like Crazy

Breakthrough Performance: Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Debut Director: J.C. Chandor, Margin Call

Best Ensemble: The Help

Spotlight Award: Michael Fassbender (A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, Shame, X-Men: First Class)

NBR Freedom of Expression: Crime After Crime

NBR Freedom of Expression: Pariah

Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation

Best Documentary: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Special Achievement in Filmmaking: The Harry Potter Franchise – A Distinguished Translation from Book

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Gift Guide 2011

Posted on December 1, 2011 at 8:00 am

Some gift idea to keep in mind as you think of your friends and family this holiday season:

For the sports fan:

ESPN Films: 30 for 30 Limited Edition Collector Set These brilliant films by some of today’s top directors have all the thrills and triumphs and gripping story lines any sports lover could ask for.  The collector set includes all of these outstanding films and five hours of extras.

For those who loves thrills and chills:

Midnight Madness: The History of Horror, Fantasy and Sci-Fi Films From the golden age of Universal Studios through the explosion of digital effects, this 2-DVD set will take you through all the categories of scary movie magic, with interviews of the people who were there.

For PBS fans:

Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey This instant classic miniseries about a wealthy country family on the brink World War I is brilliantly acted by a cast that includes Dame Maggie Smith and Elizabeth McGovern.  Season two is coming in January, so this is a good opportunity to get up to speed or enjoy all over again to prepare for what comes next.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy The feature film remake is fine but it can’t touch the original miniseries, possibly the best ever shown on television.  Alec Guiness plays George Smiley, a veteran spy called back to service to find a mole in the highest levels of British intelligence.

For classic movie buffs:

Meet Me in St. Louis One of the all-time family musical classics is this story of the Smith family in the year before the 1904 World’s Fair.  Judy Garland sings “The Trolly Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Romantic Comedies (Adam’s Rib / Woman of the Year / The Philadelphia Story / Bringing Up Baby)  Turner Classic Movies has a whole series of highly affordable classics and this is one of the best, with four Katherine Hepburn comedies featuring her two best co-stars, Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant.

TCM Classic Movie Trivia: Featuring More Than 4,000 Questions to Test Your Trivia Smarts See how well you know the movies — and find some good titles for your Netflix queue.

For the romantic:

Midnight in Paris Woody Allen’s best film in years is the story of a writer whose trip to Paris with his fiancée and her family takes an unexpected turn.

Jane Eyre This most recent re-telling of the classic Charlotte Brontë story about the shy governess and the stormy, mysterious employer stars Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender.

Beginners I predict Christopher Plummer will get an Oscar nomination for his performance as a man in his 70’s who comes out for the first time after the death of his wife. Ewan McGregor plays his son, who is a bit mystified but supportive, and inspired by his father to take some risks in his own romantic life.

For the new Blu-Ray owner:

These two sets include not just the iconic movie series that both rank at the top of box office winners but lots and lots of fabulous extras.

Star Wars: The Complete Saga

The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy

For 3-8 year-olds and their families:

Winnie The Pooh Disney’s loving adaptation of the A.A. Milne classic has beautiful hand-drawn animation and a charming story that lovingly captures the magic of the stories that have enchanted children for 85 years.

Scholastic Storybook Treasures: Treasury of 100 Storybook Classics and Scholastic Storybook Treasures: Treasury of 100 Storybook Classics Two My very favorite series for young children and their families has the very best in children’s books read aloud by the very best in voice talent with lovely musical accompaniment and some gentle animation. These also make a great gift for a school or library.

For 8-14 year-olds and their families:

Dolphin Tale Inspired by the true story of Winter, the dolphin with the prosthetic tail, this is a beautiful and inspiring family film.

Anne of Green Gables The miniseries based on the classic books about the red-headed heroine of Prince Edward Island has been digitally remastered for DVD.

The Rocketeer The 20th anniversary edition of this exciting sage of a dashing hero who fights the Nazis by wearing a special jet-pack is gorgeous to look at lots of fun.

One of my favorite picture books is The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg.  It is supposed to be the portfolio of drawings left behind by an artist with no other clues about what was going on in the stories they illustrated.  I loved to try to come up with my own ideas about what was going on.  Now, a group of top writers have given us their ideas with The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales / With an Introduction by Lemony Snicket and stories by Sherman Alexie, M.T. Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Stephen King, Tabitha King, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Sue Park, Louis Sachar, Jon Scieszka, Lemony Snicket, and Chris Van Allsburg himself.

For teens and their families:

Rise of the Planet of the Apes This excellent prequel to the tells us how an experimental treatment for Alzheimer’s led to the rise of the apes and the fall of the humans.

For everyone:

Celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest children’s books of all time with The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth and be on the lookout for the new documentary film featuring author Norton Juster, illustrator Jules Feiffer, and fans including authors, critics, teachers, and kids.

The Best of the Muppet Show The new generation that has fallen in love with the Muppets will enjoy sitting down with the older generation that remembers them well to enjoy these highlights from the original series.

Now that the story is done, Potterphiles of all ages will appreciate Harry Potter: The Complete 8 Film Collection, including the sensationally satisfying final chapter.


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