Award-worthy films look to past for inspiration
This month’s films include several Academy Award nominees and winners, and all the films deal with the past, or the effect of the past on the present.
Martin Scorsese, noted for classic films filled with violence, such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Gangs of New York and Goodfellas, is not the most likely candidate to direct an adaption of a young adult novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, about a boy living in a Paris train station in the 1930s.
The narrative of Hugo, however, really is just a framework within which Scorsese can highlight two of his obsessions: movies and the need to preserve film culture. And highlight them he does, with passion, flair and the best 3-D effects of any film so far. Fortunately, the viewer doesn’t need a 3-D television or glasses to enjoy Scorsese’s soaring camera as it flies over Paris, dives down long corridors, and brings a snarling Doberman into the living room (at that point my cats dashed for the upstairs!) Hugo looks just fine—and brighter—in conventional 2-D.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in a small apartment in the upper level of a Paris train station with his father (Jude Law); he helps his father keep all the clocks in the station wound and on time. After his father’s accidental death, Hugo is supervised by his drunken Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), who essentially leaves the boy to take care of himself and the clocks.
Hugo spends his time winding and fixing the huge timepieces and trying to repair a mechanical man his father salvaged from a museum basement. It is Hugo’s link to his father, and to fix it, he steals parts from a toy store in the train station, while avoiding the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his guard dog. Caught by the owner of the toy store (Ben Kingsley) as he tries to steal a small gear, the boy finds circumstances leading him to a friendship with the owner’s young niece, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), and to the major revelation of the story, the real identity of the old man who owns the toy store. The account of the toy shop proprietor is based on fact, and all ends well, as it should for this type of film.
The acting is excellent throughout with Kingsley managing to be gruff and yet soft-hearted without being trite, and Sacha Baron Cohen exuding menace as he pursues Hugo on a jointed artificial leg that needs periodic oiling (homage to the Tin Woodman and consistent with all the other mechanical devices in the film that need attention). Chloë Grace Moretz, memorable in Kick-Ass and as the child vampire in Let Me In, is equally good here; Ray Winstone and Jude Law are fine in small parts; and Christopher Lee has a bit part as the librarian M. Labisse.
The bonus is seeing several short films from the beginning days of motion pictures, films that made history but are seldom seen outside of film classes–workers leaving a factory, a train arriving at a station, A Trip to the Moon, and cuts from several other Melies films. There’s even a reconstruction of an early film studio showing how some of the fairly primitive special effects were achieved.
Hugo is a charming and beautiful film from one of the top directors in the world today; further, it offers an accurate view of the earliest days of film production. Don’t miss it.
(Hugo won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects; it also was nominated for Best Picture, Direction, Adapted Screenplay and Original Score.)
My Week with Marilyn
As Hugo draws archival material from the early history of motion pictures, My Week with Marilyn resurrects the blonde film star at the height of her fame in 1956, just after her marriage to Arthur Miller.
Wanting to reshape her image from sexy bombshell to serious actress, Marilyn Monroe traveled to England to star opposite Laurence Olivier in a film based on a Terrence Rattigan comedy, The Sleeping Prince. Olivier, also at the top of his career, would direct, and the film would be released as The Prince and the Showgirl.
What no one realized was that the intuitive, semi-method-trained Monroe and the disciplined, classically-trained Olivier would have conflicts throughout much of the production, and the final film would be a box office flop, leaving Olivier to give up directing. Each star would go on to greater heights–he to play Archie Rice in The Entertainer and she to play “Sugar” in what may be her greatest film, Some Like It Hot. Her death was still six years in the future.
The behind-the-scenes account of Monroe’s activities during the filming is based on the diaries of Colin Clark and his memoir The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me. It’s the memory of a twenty three-year-old third-assistant-director, who obviously is star-struck, and while Clark’s account matches other accounts of the period, his story of his time spent with Monroe seems like a young man’s chaste fantasy, although not necessarily untrue.
Clark, the son of art historian Kenneth Clark, went on to be a writer and documentary filmmaker before his death in 2002.
The film chronicles the on-set conflicts of Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and Monroe (Michelle Williams), each bringing an entourage to the battlefield. Olivier’s wife, Vivian Leigh (Julia Ormond), was jealous of Monroe before realizing that she and Olivier were developing a hate-hate relationship; Dame Sybil Thorndike (Dame Judi Dench) should have been on Olivier’s side but dressed him down on the set for the way he was treating Monroe.
On Monroe’s side were her acting coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), and Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). In the background are Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) and Colin’s friend, Lucy (Emma Watson from the Harry Potter series).
The off-set action shows Clark’s growing infatuation with Monroe as she becomes more unstable under Olivier’s criticism. When Arthur Miller leaves the set for a week, Marilyn stops showing up for work and manages to escape with Clark for some sightseeing around the area.
They go skinny-dipping in the river, with Clark showing more modesty than Monroe, who urges him to relax. When she kisses him, she says, “This is the first time I’ve ever kissed anybody younger than me” (she was thirty at the time). They go to his school, Eton, and to Windsor Castle where Clark’s godfather, Owen Morshead, the Royal Librarian (Derek Jacobi), serves as guide.
During one of these trips, they encounter people who recognize Monroe, despite her lack of make-up and glamorous clothes. She asks Clark, “Shall I be her?” and instantly turns on the wiggle, the breathy voice and the poses that transform her into the movie star.
The acting is uniformly solid with Branagh, Wanamaker and Dench especially outstanding. Eddie Redmayne is fine as Clark, knowing when to stay in the background and when to look shy and flustered. Of course, the film succeeds or fails with Michelle Williams’ portrayal of Marilyn Monroe, and this reviewer agrees with those who nominated her for an Academy Award. She’s not perfect in the face, and she’s a little undernourished compared to Monroe, but she shows several sides of Monroe’s personality: star, teasing sexpot, confused Norma Jean and insecure woman-wanting-to-be-approved-by-everyone. There’s even the beginning of the dependence on drugs that would destroy her.
It’s a bravura performance that took a lot of courage, and she gives as good an imitation of Marilyn Monroe as we are likely to see, an imitation of a woman who was never even nominated for an Academy Award.
My Week with Marilyn is lightweight entertainment that skirts the darker sides of its subject but succeeds in bringing Marilyn Monroe to life, thanks to Michelle Williams’ performance. It makes me want to take another look at The Prince and the Showgirl. (My Week with Marilyn was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress [Williams] and Best Supporting Actor [Branagh]).
Written and directed by Alexander Payne, The Descendants emphasizes how the distant and the immediate past, both ancient ancestors and contemporary descendants, interact to shape current decisions and people. Payne’s previous films include the highly praised Sideways and About Schmidt, both focused on men experiencing late-life crises.
In voice-over narration as the film opens, Matt King (George Clooney) complains about Hawaii and his life, despite being quite wealthy and the heir to a huge tract of undeveloped land. Granted, Matt does have his problems.
His wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is on life support in a local hospital after a boating accident has left her comatose; her medical directive stipulates that such support must be removed if there is no chance of her recovery. Matt and her daughters are waiting for a verdict from the doctors, while the wife’s father blames Matt for neglecting his wife and indirectly causing the accident.
Matt also is responsible, as the person in charge of the trust, for making the final decision about the sale of 25,000 acres of prime real estate. All of his cousins who will share in the proceeds are waiting for his decision, some more anxiously than others, and Matt isn’t sure about which offer, if any, to take, but the trust expires in seven years, and they must do something.
Then there are the daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who is seventeen, and Scottie (Amara Miller), who is ten. Matt acknowledges he has had little part in raising the girls, but now, with his wife out of the picture, he has to decide how to handle them. He hasn’t a clue, and they know it.
Then Alexandra acknowledges her most recent fight with her mother centered around an affair her mother was having at the time of the accident and about which Matt knew nothing. Reeling from the revelation, Matt expends considerable energy trying to identify and confront the man (Matthew Lillard) who made him a cuckold.
To add a final complication, when Matt identifies his wife’s lover, he finds the man will make a small fortune if Matt sells his trust property as he had planned to do. The rest of the film follows how these threads become untangled and how Matt gets the emotional side of his family’s life straightened out.
The film could have turned into overly ripe melodrama, but the fine acting, with Clooney leading the pack, helps establish empathy with the characters, and the drama remains under control and believable instead of deteriorating into a weepy soap opera. Another plus is that the characters are relatively complex: even Alex’s surfer boyfriend has some redeeming qualities, and the wife’s lover is frantically trying to keep his own marriage together and salvage his real estate business. Consequently, the audience can identify with them and and wonder about the outcomes. There’s even some humor, as in the scene when Matt jumps into his flip-flops and goes flapping down the block to ask his neighbor if he knows who Matt’s wife’s lover is.
The Descendants is a complex, adult film that keeps the viewer’s attention from the opening monologue to the closing scene. (It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Actor [Clooney] and won the Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.)
The Skin I Live In
Dr. Robert Ledgard, the main character of The Skin I Live In, resides in a sprawling villa in the Spanish countryside; its high, thick walls and tile roof suggest a house that is two or three hundred years old. Yet inside it are several rooms enclosed in stainless steel and glass, sterile modules in which surgeons carry out delicate operations.
Pedro Almodóvar, one of the world’s most original and highly regarded filmmakers, has created a film whose structure matches that of his main setting. He has taken the old genre horror film, with direct references to Frankenstein and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1935), and updated it with contemporary medical knowledge about plastic surgery and sex-change operations, fitted it with television observation cameras from which no one can hide, and then peopled it with the same intelligent, violent characters driven by their obsessions to the edge of insanity–think of Colin Clive in Frankenstein shrieking, “It’s alive!” He also upgraded the soft black and white photography into a vivid palette of bright colors that, as usual with this director, tempts one to a second viewing, just to enjoy the visuals.
Nothing is ever what it first appears to be in an Almodóvar film. He delights in presenting an unusual scene to the viewer, letting it develop, and then drawing back, in time or space, to show that this scene contains much more than the viewer initially suspected. Take, for example, the muscular bald man in the tiger suit complete with curled, bouncing tail who shows up at the locked front gate of the villa. Why is he here? Why does the housekeeper, against her better judgment, let him in? What is his relationship to her? To the owner of the villa? Why does he think he recognizes on a video monitor (the kitchen is lined with them) the girl confined upstairs–even though he, like the audience at this point, is wrong?
The identity of this woman is revealed only when the story backs up some months to an earlier traumatic event, and then back to an even earlier one, and finally back to something involving the tiger man. Through it all runs the surgical skill and moral bankruptcy of Dr. Ledgard (Antonio Banderas). Banderas, who appeared in earlier Almodóvar films, had last worked with the director in 1990’s Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down. That film was a break-through for Banderas, who came to the U. S. to star in Evita, The Mask of Zorro and the Spy Kids series and to provide the voice of Puss in Boots for the Shrek movies and the feline’s own recent feature.
Everything in this film is beautifully done, from the sets to the acting and plot twists, and even though the final resolution surprised me, it fits within the framework of the film. As usual, Almodóvar has some kinky diversions (the doctor falls in love with his creation) and some theatrical numbers (a torch singer at a party). He manages to wrap it all up in a tightly constructed homage to the old horror films that still surprises the contemporary viewer.
Of the fifteen or twenty Almodóvar films I’ve seen, the quality has ranged from very interesting to superb. The Skin I Live In, as most reviewers agreed, is in the upper echelon of his work (in Spanish with English subtitles).
––Leonard G. Heldreth
Editor’s Note: All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can be found at mmnow.com
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