Thursday, December 15, 2011

Two Films That Take A While To Warm Up But Deliver a Glow

      Alexander Payne’s much-anticipated The Descendants finds paradise after the proverbial down turn – in this case, a power boating accident that leaves the hero’s wife in a coma.  Some critics (The Village Voice for one) have argued that it’s not dark enough and that somehow Payne’s edge has been blunted.   I totally disagree.  George Clooney plays Matt King, a wealthy lawyer descended from Hawaiian royalty, who has to decide when
to end his wife’s life support and whether to sell 25,000 acres of undeveloped land that will net his extended family an enormous fortune. 

      There are a number of plot twists that have already been revealed all over the place and I don’t want to do the same because part of the humor comes from Matt’s lackadaisical disconnection from his daughters, his cousins, some other characters that are closer to his family than he would like and, finally, himself.  This is not a laugh riot film and it’s not a tragedy either; it really is Chekhovian because huge decisions are made and people’s lives are completely changed, but it’s handled in an off-hand, understated fashion.  The big emotional scenes are simultaneously sharp and quick, reflecting the ambivalence and depth of feeling anchoring the mood.

Clooney, Miller, Woodley, and Krause
      Clooney does get the chance to deliver two big monologues that run a full gamut of emotions to his comatose wife and I’m sure they’ll play all over the awards season ceremonies, but it’s the sum of his performance as it develops that results in the final silent epiphany shot between Matt and his daughters.  Since the film was most likely shot out of sequence, it’s a testament to Clooney’s craft that he succeeds in what becomes a profound performance.  The supporting cast is remarkable from Robert Forster as his irascible father-in-law, Beau Bridges as his outwardly relaxed but actually sly and wily cousin, Matthew Lillard as a philandering realtor whose affability barely masks his desperation and Judy Greer as the realtor’s sweet, decent, and deeply disappointed wife.  The standouts are Amara Miller as Scottie, the bratty younger daughter, and Shailene Woodley as Alex, the teenager who sees right through her parents and just wants them to really notice her.  It’s difficult to pinpoint what works about Woodley – whether it’s the writing, her talent, her looks, or the fact that most moviegoers are unlikely to have seen her in a major role, but the stars are in alignment for this performance. Nick Krause as Sid, Alex’s friend (and he really is her friend and treats her with the utmost respect), who’s a surfer able to live completely by instinct and react honestly, is a real find because he seems to come out of nowhere, but the movie’s unimaginable without him, especially in a poignant moment with Matt where he recalls his father’s death with a chuckle as a cover and I just wanted to choke.  

      Visually, it’s one of the most overcast movies in recent memory – Paradise on a downer or a little hung over.  The interiors, for the most part, have a note of shabbiness about them, which makes total sense, but rarely is allowed by any art director or director, for that matter, so it’s refreshing.  
      Once Michelle Williams gets a chance to warm up and play an intimate scene with Eddie Redmayne as he tries to persuade her to show up to act her part in The Prince and the Showgirl, My Week with Marilyn takes off.  This is a charming, slight movie, which is a basically a young man’s coming of age story of that summer where he found sex and himself with an older woman.  The twist is that the older woman was Marilyn Monroe and I’m unsure whether Colin Clark ever got over the experience with her since he wrote two books about it later in his life after a long and prestigious career as an arts documentary director.  It’s doubtful she ever gave it another thought after returning Stateside.  Williams doesn’t look exactly like Monroe and she’s at the mercy of the script – and it’s not exactly very deep – but she fully displays Marilyn’s magnetism as a woman and her unbeatable instincts as a performer as well as her crippling insecurity, desperate narcissism and her lack of development as an actress.  

Williams' Marilyn Impression
      Marilyn was inescapably lovely once she went blonde and moved from having to act parts (like Don’t Bother to Knock) and, instead, perform and really move in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes because she could really breathe and not have to force it.  It’s the reverse for Williams.  Though she sings and moves beautifully in the opening and closing credits and in the scenes from The Prince and the Showgirl, it’s when she can really utilize her chameleonic technique that she becomes mesmerizing.  She’s so grounded and articulate during promotional interviews that she is a relaxing force because the viewer knows the performance is completely about the character and not her; with Marilyn, it was about nothing except Marilyn.   This was especially true of Showgirl since it was a trifling bit of stale doggerel that only worked because of Monroe’s luminosity and unexpected wit.  

      Olivier gave far too studied a performance and couldn’t find the sexy humor in it – probably because he felt it was beneath him and because he made the gigantic mistake of directing and starring in it.  His classical technique and utter professionalism were at odds with someone as haywire as Monroe and her overpowering neediness, exacerbated by the Strasbergs’ controlling approach to Method acting.  Vainly he hoped he’d connect with Monroe, much as the prince does with the showgirl and, just like that film, he didn’t, though for different reasons.  Kenneth Branagh captures Olivier’s florid, almost continental speaking style that may have been a warm up for the part of the Prince, and his lower lip is identical to Olivier’s.  He doesn’t possess Olivier’s aristocratic bearing and almost heroic physicality, but the arrogance is completely there.  Of course, Olivier’s ego was justified.  He was a great stage and screen actor and directed classical theatre and Shakespearean films with genius.  It was The Prince and the Showgirl that stunk and that will be all most contemporary audiences will know anything about.  

      Eddie Redmayne really looks like a charming, though innocent, young upper class Englishman of the 1950s mainly because of his height, his freckles, and his angular – almost aquiline – looks that aren’t handsome, but aren’t unattractive.  He almost seems younger here than he did in The Good Shepherd or Savage Grace and his self-effacing style allows the spotlight to fully illuminate Williams.  Neil wished Marion Cotillard had played Vivien Leigh and I wished for Juliette Binoche because Julia Ormond seems more like Valerie Hobson. She’s the great lady/consort/hostess, rather than the brilliant, mercurial, manic depressive Leigh that was disappointed and furious she couldn’t act with Larry.  When you read how nuts Leigh could be, it’s a wonder Olivier even finished the film at all, though none of that comes through in the script or the acting between Branagh and Ormond.  (Catherine Zeta-Jones turned down the part because of Michael Douglas’s illness, but her glistening, feline presence would have been right on the money and she’d have been a fun scene partner for Williams if such a scene had been written).

I heard that they want to do a Broadway musical of My Week With Marilyn and Katy Perry may play Marilyn.  What do you think of that?  I thought I had a chance at playing her!

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