Nov 24, 2011

My Week With Marilyn

I have a fear of biopics because they tend to be stiff and cheesy and too reverent towards their subjects. The opening scenes of My Week With Marilyn promise a classic Harvey Weinstein, Oscar-hungry project, all very prim and proper but not very interesting, but if you stick around, it gets more poignant as it goes along.
You have to have ovaries of titanium to step into the shoes of such an icon, and Michelle Williams acquits herself quite well. At first one must get past the physical differences (Jessica Chastain, who does a Monroeish turn in The Help, would have also been excellent casting). Williams can look very pretty, and she has that mix of wispiness and will that make her a good choice for the role; but even with some extra padding in the rump, she does not cut the gorgeous, voluptuous figure that Marilyn cut in her day. Her face is not as perfect, but what she lacks in the flesh, she makes up in spirit. As the movie progresses, we get a glimpse into this rare, unhappy creature. The voice is breathy, almost labored, and the charm and the pain are there, as well as some sullen unreachable quality by which she denies the world her luminous presence. Marilyn is fickle, flirty, manipulative, charming, either innocent or playing innocent -- sometimes all in the space of five seconds. She must have been quite smart, to play dumb so well.
The story is sweet and sad. It is based on a memoir by Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a young man who leaves his family's august manor to "join the circus" of the movies. He gets a job as a gofer at Laurence Olivier's production company. Olivier (Kenneth Branagh, his heir apparent, chomping at the bit) decides to cast Monroe as his love interest in a comedy. In reality, The Prince and The Showgirl was the first movie by Monroe's production company. She is the biggest star in the planet. He is so famous an actor that a brand of cigarettes bears his name, and he is married to Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O'Hara, That Hamilton Woman and Blanche Dubois). As actors go, these two were living legends at the time, and must have been huge to Marilyn's eyes. As Colin says to her later in the film, Olivier is an actor who wants to be a movie star, and she is a movie star who wants to be a serious actress: it won't work. Compounded by the fact that the most famous woman in the cosmos was pathologically insecure and suffered from stage fright, among other demons, the shoot did not go well. Marilyn arrives in London with third husband, Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott, trying to sound very Brooklyn) and acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) in tow, and everything goes wrong. Marilyn is always late, she flubs lines, Strasberg whispers in her ear, and worst of all, she feels Olivier hates her. Marilyn relies too much on the Strasberg method by which she has to plumb all kinds of emotional depths in order to say one line, which drives Olivier crazy. I loved seeing the chaos she created by always being late, utterly inconsiderate to the cast and crew, including Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench, aka God), a giant of the British stage who was nevertheless enormously kind to Marilyn. Monroe was famously unprofessional. Directors forgave her time and again because her charisma was truly spectacular. She oozed desire. Her painful contradictions seemed to come out from every pore of her flawless skin, which made her an incredible movie star.
The movie is told from the point of view of Colin. Besotted with Marilyn, he somehow gains her confidence and ends up being the appeaser between her and Olivier. They develop some sort of a friendship and Marilyn decides that he is the only person from the studio she can trust. Now, when was the last time you saw a male ingenue on screen? Redmayne is excellent as the wide eyed but smart and sophisticated kid who gets his heart broken by the biggest sexpot on the planet. It is a smart and lovely performance, and except for a couple of moments in which he actually bats his eyelashes, rooted in true feeling. Redmayne and Williams have great chemistry together, and he makes his love for her utterly believable. You can clearly see how he goes from eager neophyte to the manly man who is there to protect her. And you can see his heart breaking, which is no small acting feat. I hope it is not an unsung performance: a man in love is such a rare part for a male actor.
Colin, who is the third assistant director on set, ends up having more power over Marilyn than Olivier. Olivier, a pragmatist, lets it happen as long as Colin can make her show up on time and functioning. Marilyn, of course, wields the ultimate power because she knows she is the only indispensable cog in the wheel. She wields her power with her physique, and by being an emotional wreck. She hints at her horrid childhood, and her complicated relationships with men, but the movie smartly leaves her bottomless misery a mystery. She is solely obsessed with her own shortcomings, willfully oblivious to the chaos she causes on the set. There is a wonderful moment where, after having being herself (if such a thing was possible) alone with Colin, she has to turn on the wattage for an impromptu audience of admirers at Windsor Castle, and she becomes Marilyn for them, mimicking her own sexy mannerisms. It's hard to fathom how impossible it was to be her: she never left the girl from the foster homes behind, even if she reached the pinnacle of access. Adored by everyone, she never felt anybody truly loved her.

Nov 13, 2011

J. Edgar

This movie confirms what I have always maintained. That Clint Eastwood is a hack whose reputation as a good director I find inexplicable. J. Edgar Hoover is surely a great historical (and hysterical) character: a complicated prick, and the only man in the history of the United States to have remained in power for almost fifty years. However, this biopic, ponderously written by Dustin Lance Black (Milk) and clumsily directed by Eastwood, manages to make his story dull, disjointed, stiff and lifeless.
The film has many issues. It is directed by a man who does not have an ounce of inspiration in his body. He takes a script and stages it in the most unimaginative, workmanlike, literal way possible.
The script is needlessly baroque, with a back and forth structure in which an aged Hoover (Leonardo Di Caprio, looking like an exploding cauliflower) writes his memoirs and flashbacks to his beginnings as a young man. This drains the story of drama. A conventional chronological structure would have allowed us to see more clearly the arc of this strange, Shakespearean villain, from a stuttering sissy with a domineering mother to the most powerful, intimidating man in America. That would have been more daring. Instead we are needlessly dizzied by all the back and forth and horrified by a terrible make up job (don't be surprised if it is up for an Oscar. It still sucks).
The aged Di Caprio looks just like Jon Voight, so why didn't they get Jon Voight to play him in his old age instead? And Clyde Tolson, the love of Hoover's life and his second in command (a charming and excellent Armie Hammer), could have been played by Eastwood himself, instead of making Hammer look like a zombie out of a Christopher Lee movie.
How are we expected to believe anything this movie says about J. Edgar Hoover when the make up is so cheesily fake? When the director makes terrible choices in terms of casting characters that age many years in the span of two hours? Judi Dench could play a lamppost and get awards for it, and I always welcome her presence, because no one utters lines the way she does, but there is a preposterous scene when J. Edgar is a little boy, and instead of using a young actress (Samantha Morton, say) they give poor Dame Judi a terrible reverse aging makeup that makes her look ghoulish, and the movie amateurish. This is hack work. Had the script been linear, most of the make up problems could have been avoided because we'd have seen the exploding cauliflower/Jon Voight only at the end of the movie.
But let's say that you manage to look past the makeup debacle. The movie still fails to make a strong, clear point about a closeted gay man who was obsessed with secrecy, who spied on people and intimidated them by keeping secret files on them and let them know about it. The film fails to investigate how a man with an obsession for law and order, a man who created a modern, efficient and methodical FBI, was corrupted by power and abused his position to such an extent that he had eight sitting presidents trembling in fear of him, along many others. All that annoying back and forth fails to connect in a meaningful way how Hoover's queerness affected the creation of his law enforcement persona. Hoover could have been written as a character of Shakespearean magnitude, but the movie is cumbersome, corny and very superficial, and it wastes the opportunity to create an interesting portrait of an abuser of power. This J. Edgar could have been a man of invincible power yet vast reserves of weakness, cowardice and self doubt. Yet we don't really get to see the tension or the contrasts. And I don't blame this exclusively on the actor.
In a world where you would not need a movie star to bankroll a film, this role should be played by a great character actor, someone like Paul Giamatti, Steve Buscemi, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Peter Sarsgaard or even Joaquin Phoenix, who is a good looking version of Hoover (use your imagination). But in this world, the role goes to a boyish looking movie star who is not the character's type at all and becomes a distraction in it. Now, Leonardo Di Caprio is a consummate professional, and he clearly did his homework. He commits to this role as he does to all his work, with the utmost thoroughness. He nails the rapid speech (apparently the result of childhood stuttering), the stiffness of the era and of the man, and he even gets to act quite decently behind the clumps of makeup. They have him wear dark contact lenses that obscure his eyes, for crying out loud; if the poor guy gets an Oscar nomination it will be for acting in spite of all the obstacles against him -- bad makeup, bad casting, a clunky script and a hack director. Di Caprio delivers a very solid performance, but not a great one. Something feels mechanical and stunted. I think that the structure of the movie undermines the arc of the character, so while Di Caprio is sweating buckets trying to bring the guy to life, Eastwood and Black do everything in their power to make it hard for him.
J. Edgar Hoover was a nasty son of a bitch and this movie shows him that way. But this is the post Tony Soprano age, we are used to nasty sons of bitches that seduce or compel us to keep watching. I felt absolutely nothing for this character in the course of this interminable movie, no matter how much cheesy swelling music they added in the scenes that are meant to tug at the heartstrings. No hate, no love, no interest in this man. I blame it on the stiffness of the direction, on too many ridiculous scenes, like Hoover proposing to his secretary (Naomi Watts) at the Library of Congress five minutes after he's met her, or an over the top tantrum by Tolson as Hoover tells him he thinks it's time for a Mrs. Hoover. But mostly, one gets detached from the cardboard quality of the whole enterprise because of the lack of a livelier and deeper probing of Hoover's character. This movie is a bore.

Nov 12, 2011

Into The Abyss

Werner Herzog starts his powerful, devastating new documentary about the death penalty and violence in America, interviewing clergyman Richard Lopez at a cemetery. Lopez is a priest who accompanies those sentenced to death as they receive the lethal injection in a death row jail in Texas. In this first interview, Herzog sets up his approach to the topic. At first we think he is going to mock or confront the priest about the seeming absurdity of the Church participating in such a ritual. But Herzog simply asks Lopez what it is exactly that he does at the death chamber. The priest explains that he is there to be with the convicts in their final moments and he is only allowed to hold the condemned man by the ankle. There is something at once childlike, primitive and biblical about this minor detail, and this is the kind of nugget that Herzog knows how to mine. Herzog does ask him quite skeptically about God's role in all of this, to which the priest answers that everything happens for a purpose, etc. Lopez starts talking about spending time alone at a golf course and observing birds and squirrels. He then breaks down in tears as he thinks how he is able to save two squirrels from getting squashed under his car but there is nothing he can do to save the convicts at the death chamber.
The camera gets closer to the crosses behind Lopez, which are all identical, and Lopez explains that those death row inmates who have no one to take care of their burial are buried here by the state, with a cross and only their inmate number -- no name. It is only then that we realize there is something strange about this cemetery and these crosses. It's as if the men were killed by the state but the state wants to act like they never existed. This is such a quietly outrageous image, that I still have trouble trying to understand how it is possible. Just the sight of this decent man, trying to do what he believes is God's work in a bizarre system, standing in front of a verdant field of endless numbered crosses, is devastating. Every question that Herzog asks from his subjects, begets many more questions in the viewer. Are these men alone in the world or have their families rejected them? Is it the state's business to murder convicts, and then bury them with nameless crosses? What is it about the US that disconnects people so much from one another? 
This film does not pretend to be an "objective" look into capital punishment in the US. To make his point about the absurdity, the indignity, the wrongness of the death penalty, Herzog uses the capital case of two young white men in Texas, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, who were teenagers at the time of the crimes. Shrewdly, Herzog chooses to focus on an air tight murder case that cannot be easily tainted by partisan politics or ideology. The men are both white, as are all their victims, in full possession of their minds, and the evidence against them is incontrovertible. He starts the film fooling the audience into thinking that what we may be about to see a gross miscarriage of justice, but then he slowly reveals the chilling circumstances of the case, which make the viewer feel like the two kids should fry in hell for all eternity. They committed a wanton and callous triple murder.
Herzog lets the facts of the case unfold as if in a mystery, but this is not a procedural or a criminal investigation. He layers the revelations so skillfully, manipulating them precisely against our assumptions or expectations, that he creates an exponential portrait of senseless violence. Both convicts accuse each other of the crimes; both are lying. Herzog is not interested in the minutiae, or in who did what.  He is interested in the deeper mystery of why men commit murder and the devastating emotional consequences of such violence. This story, as told to him by the relatives of the victims, a police officer, the father and the wife of one of the murderers, a couple of acquaintances of the murderers and a man who used to work at death row, is a bottomless parade of human calamity, an abyss of pain that sears everyone connected to it, compounded by the crowning absurdity of the death penalty.
Herzog is too smart to sound superior, snide or impatient with the bizarre paradoxes of the moral vision of the state of Texas. This is not smartass agitprop a la Michael Moore. Herzog is an enormously skilled storyteller and a serious artist; he wants us to absorb the shocking contradictions and comprehend the scale of human suffering, and that is how he quietly, personally makes his political statement.
The movie is shot by Herzog's longtime cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, in simple but powerful compositions of the subjects in mostly medium shots in the foreground of the frame. I don't know how Herzog got the local police to let him use the footage they took of the actual scenes of the crimes, but he does, to remarkable effect. This is stuff that the public never gets to see, and it is horrible and surprisingly sad. One of the victims was killed as she was baking cookies. The police find the tray with the cookie dough and the TV on.
Herzog has an eye for the powerful image. He repeatedly films the empty death chamber, with the little cell that holds the prisoner in the last hours of his life a dozen steps away, a table laden with no less than four Holy Bibles in English and Spanish in front of the cell, and the actual chamber itself, with the lethal injection gurney and its many restraints. Everything looks antediluvian except for a state of the art digital clock inside the chamber. There is no need for Herzog to comment. He just trains his camera on visions of abject absurdity.
Herzog is usually an eccentric character in his documentaries, asking pesky questions and having contrarian opinions. In this case, he refrains from making comments or passing judgement. He allows the testimony of these people to create a heartbreaking tapestry of hurt and injustice.But he is a great interviewer: gentle, intimate and blunt at the same time. He asks the right and logical questions, and some slightly eccentric ones, and all of his subjects open up to him. It seems like they know, can sense or have been told that he is an important filmmaker and some of them address him with a formality that is very touching. 
There is something about the way in which Herzog focuses on some detail in one person's story, that creates a whole reality without him needing to establish a lot of context. He interviews a friend of Jason Burkett who recounts how Burkett once held a gun to his temple for hours and then shot at him, and somehow the gun did not go off. The kid and Herzog talk about how lucky that was and Herzog somehow coaxes him to reveal that he learned to read and write in jail (most of the males in this film have been in jail). Herzog asks him how it feels to be able to read and write (awesome) and surmises that you have to be twice as smart as everybody else to function in the world without reading and writing. Herzog does not make a big deal out of it, but one wonders, is this the richest country in the world where you still have illiterate, impoverished adults? Why is everyone in Texas so hell bent on self-destruction?
By focusing on the personal on a small scale, he opens a vista of a United States that is deeply troubling; a place, Texas at least, where young, piss-poor people may not have access to education or opportunity but they apparently have unfettered access to guns, where entire families fester in jails and where the state kills people who killed other people, which makes the law and lawlessness look too much like each other.
The title of the film, Into the Abyss, sounds just like a nature documentary (it is a film about human nature). Its subtitle is A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life. Of life after senseless death and of life in spite of death, of bad lives, life in jail, lives that should by all accounts be less fraught with danger and hardship. Herzog ends hid film in a note of hope, with a woman pregnant by one of the murderers. Having heard his pronunciations about the cruelty of nature before, I don't believe he just wants to give us a ray of sunshine. I understand that the need to continue human life is just as strong as the need for some to end it, but I wasn't completely comforted by the thought of bringing a baby into such a world, After all, what is the future for this kid, whose father is up for parole in another 30 years? Yet, if anything gives you faith in human nature in this film it is that at least some of them, like Burkett's father, feel guilt, sorrow and remorse; others have a conscience, like Lopez and Fred Allen, a man who finally quits his job at death row after enduring too many executions.
A conscience, which is what the murderers lacked, is all we can hope for, all we need to ensure we don't descend into savagery.

Nov 9, 2011

Oscar in Crisis

After saying publicly that "rehearsing is for fags", professional idiot and overcompensated Hollywood hack Brett Ratner predictably had to bow out of producing the 2011 Oscars.
Some people are having a zirotsky, mostly because of the gay slur. My interpretation, which is not a justification, is that none of this calamity would have transpired if he had said "rehearsing is for pussies", which I think is what he meant, and which is still offensively stupid. Rehearsing may not be for hacks of his caliber; it's for serious professionals.
Ratner was stupid and clueless enough to use "fags", a nasty slur for gays; a huge and talented contingent of which keeps Hollywood in business, not so much by buying tickets, but by actually working in it. Probably a huge number of the people behind the scenes in any Hollywood production and/or Oscar telecast is comprised of "fags".
Like that idiot Republican from Texas who used the phrase "Jew them down", unless you want the public to get a glimpse into the kind of schmucks you really are, learn to calibrate your language, fools.
I find Ratner's arrogance about rehearsals equally or more offensive. Is he so gifted that he can do away with professionalism? His movies are the garbage they are, among other things, presumably because he is too macho to rehearse them (although I doubt that he doesn't rehearse the car chases, explosions and karate chops involving Jackie Chan).
Just as you don't want your children hearing a successful Hollywood hack (a role model, in other words) use slur words against a particular minority, you don't want them influencing your children to be lazy, arrogant slobs. Saying that rehearsing is for fags is like saying that doing your homework and studying are for losers; a patently stupid thought. Rehearsing is for artists, consummate professionals and generally people who passionately try to do their very best with their creative gifts, whether big or small. 
Still, this goes to confirm that Ratner's hiring was a very bad idea. And so instead of this being a calamity, it may actually be a good thing. It is almost inhumanly possible to imagine an Oscar ceremony worse than last year's. I have a feeling that Ratner was on the way to achieving that. Now we'll never know. It has even crossed my mind that perhaps Ratner wanted out of the whole bloated blintz and he knew exactly how to extricate himself from it, but that may be giving him too much credit.

Some people enjoy watching the Oscars as a ten car pile up from which you cannot avert your eyes. I'm not one of them. True, they are impossible to survive without copious amounts of alcohol or other painkillers; but every year, and despite an avalanche of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, one wishes it will be a fun, cool show with a gazillion movie stars (not TV, not internet, not reality show stars) and fairly apportioned prizes. This I know is delusional, but such is the pull they exert for some of us (or maybe only me).
We know the Oscars are ridiculous, moribund, unfair, vulgar, fake, clueless and horrifying, but they're the Oscars. I surmise this is similar to being a diehard Red Sox fan, except that the Oscars don't even deserve that kind of fan loyalty. So what is it about them that makes me park my ass in front of the TV set that Sunday or Monday in February or March or whenever it is and submit myself voluntarily to excruciating torture? Maybe that for about four hours I get to glimpse many actors and artists I love all in one room and to uselessly root for the movies I liked (and don't forget the dresses).
I actually scream at the TV screen on Oscar night (sort of like this guy).

Nov 2, 2011

Cinema Quote of The Week

Anthony Lane knocked it out of the park this week.
This is why I enjoy reading him (bold letters are mine):
“Tower Heist” might nonetheless become a footnote in the history of cinema, as might Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” another new release. The two works have almost nothing in common, except that both show clumps of unlikable people behaving implausibly in confined spaces. More important, both are enmeshed in the squabble over video on demand, or VOD, which allows customers to view a new, or barely used, film in the nest of their own home. On October 5th, Universal Pictures announced a trial project, whereby “Tower Heist” would be available to half a million households in Atlanta and Portland, Oregon, three weeks after its appearance in movie theatres, at a cost of $59.99.
One’s immediate reaction to this news was: sixty bucks! For a Brett Ratner movie! It’s like one of those cafés in Weimar Germany where a glass of beer cost you four billion marks. The stakes were raised considerably by reports that NATO was incensed by this latest move in the battle of VOD. For one heady morning, I was under the impression that air strikes would be launched on Universal. Only then was it explained to me that NATO stands for the National Association of Theatre Owners, who regard the “Tower Heist” experiment, and similar ventures, as the thin end of a deadening wedge... Moviegoers will still watch movies; they just won’t go.
“Can you blame us?” they will cry. “Who wants to pay for a sitter, drive twenty miles in the rain, and sit in a fug of vaporized popcorn butter next to people who are either auditioning for ‘Contagion 2’ or texting the Mahabharata to their second-best friends?” And the answer is: me.
ME TOO, Anthony! Here is the clincher:
There’s only one problem with home cinema: it doesn’t exist. The very phrase is an oxymoron. As you pause your film to answer the door or fetch a Coke, the experience ceases to be cinema.  ...One thing that has nourished the theatrical experience, from the Athens of Aeschylus to the multiplex, is the element of compulsion. Someone else decides when the show will start; we may decide whether to attend, but, once we take our seats, we join the ride and surrender our will. The same goes for the folks around us, whom we do not know, and whom we resemble only in our private desire to know more of what will unfold in public, on the stage or screen. We are strangers in communion, and, once that pact of the intimate and the populous is snapped, the charm is gone.
Read more for Lane's fun pan of Tower Heist and his pithy but quite accurate assessment of Melancholia.