Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My Week With Marilyn

Rated R. Our Ratings: V -0; L -5; S/N -6.  Running time: 1 hour 39 min.

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing…
And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the
weak, be patient with all of them.
                                                                        1 Thessalonians 5:11, 14

Young Colin helps Marilyn through a mob of eager reporters.
© 2011The Weinstein Company

This film, based on Colin Clark's diaries, The Prince, The Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn, can be seen as a good addition to the movies about movie making genre, as well as a peek into the private life of what was once the most famous and adored actress in the world. And for people of faith director Simon Curtis’s film has the additional dimension as being a good story about encouragement and grace and their role in life. That the story’s events are more or less true makes it all the better.

Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) comes from an upper-class English family, his father being the famous art historian Kenneth Clark whose 13-part BBC Civilization: A Personal View is a classic television documentary. Wanting to develop his own life and escape from under his father’s shadow, Colin manages in the summer of 1956, through pluck and persuasion, to land a position at Pinewood Studios. It is an unpaid position at first as a “Third Assistant Director” to Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), which translates as “gofer.”  Olivier is directing and co-starring in The Prince and the Showgirl, and the actress regarded by the press as an American sex goddess is soon to arrive in London. This, of course, is Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), bringing with her new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) and drama coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), wife of Method Acting guru Lee Strasberg.
Both at he airport and at Pinewood Marilyn is given the red carpet treatment, with Olivier heading the assembled cast and studio staff expressing warm greetings and words of admiration. For Olivier this will be the last time for a long while that he utters anything positive to or about his costar. The insecure actress is always late, sometimes hours late, and when she does leave her dressing room to show up on the set, she seeks guidance and reassurance not from director Olivier, but from Lee, whom she always keeps close at hand.

It is during this tumultuous period that the 23 year-old Colin, who like virtually every other male (Olivier included, as his wife Vivian Leigh observes) has developed a crush on the actress, is invited into the private life of the tormented actress. This becomes the intense week when Arthur Miller, who observes that Marilyn and her celebrityhood sucks all the air from him, decides to return to the USA so that he can get back to his writing. Feeling abandoned (again), Marilyn turns to Colin for the comfort and reassurance that she needs as badly as any heroin addict ever needed a fix.

During a week in which there is little call for her to be on the set, Colin escorts Marilyn around London. Earlier there had been a delightful exchange when someone says to her that she must get out more to see the sites of the city, to which she replies, “I am the sight.” This is not a vain boast, but a wry expression of the truth. She tries to go shopping, but is immediately spotted and quickly surrounded by a crowd pressing in upon her, everyone trying to touch her or acquire her autograph. She is as much a prisoner of her fame as a beneficiary of it.

When Colin takes her to his old university, she is quickly surrounded by admiring students, blessing one with a kiss on the cheek that he will never forget. Standing at the top of a short flight of steps, she senses that they want the screen Marilyn, so she graciously gives to them a brief performance of her famous shimmy and shake steps. They are enthralled. However when Colin is able to get them into the Queen’s palace, she shows her more serious side, making some intelligent remarks and questions to Colin’s grandfather, who is the royal librarian (and unaware of who she is).

Marilyn is wonderfully portrayed by Michelle Williams as a highly talented woman wracked by serious doubts about her ability and haunted by a sense of childhood abandonment. In one telling scene Colin sees two pictures on her vanity desk, one of her mother, he learns, and one of Abraham Lincoln. To his query, she says, “he is my Dad. I never knew my real father, so it might as well be him.” In scene after scene we see also that Marilyn is fearful in the presence of the man considered one of the greatest actors in the world. She worries that she cannot measure up to Olivier’s expectations, and sure enough, time after time she doesn’t, her mistakes requiring retake after retake. It is Colin who during their week spent together provides the comfort and support that not even longtime associate Lee Strasberg can offer.

Kenneth Branaugh should not be overlooked in this film, his performance as the frustrated director also being outstanding, though understandably overshadowed by that of Ms. Williams’. We see in Olivier’s interaction with Marilyn the clash between two approaches to acting, that of the classical in which practice and skill are paramount and that of the Method in which the actor strives to understand the motivation and inner life of the character. As Colin says to Marilyn, “It's agony because he's a great actor who wants to be a film star, and you're a film star who wants to be a great actress. This film won't help either of you.”  Marilyn, emerging from an insecure past and wanting to move beyond the straight jacket of “sex goddess” to which her fans would confine her, struggles to become an artist as serious as Olivier himself—and to be taken as seriously.

Earlier I wrote that this is a film of grace, and so it is. We see how young Colin, even more innocent in some ways than Marilyn, provides a measure of temporary security and comfort for the actress. But so do others serve as agents of grace, the most prominent being Judi Dench’s Dame Sybil Thorndike, an actress who immediately realizes Marilyn’s vulnerability and need for reassurance. Unlike Olivier, who as director is so focused on getting the film made within budget, Dame Sybil is able to reach out to the younger woman at various times. Marilyn as the child/woman also bestows grace—on the students who gaze at her in awe when she briefly performs for them, and also upon Colin, well before their magical week spent in close company. Sensing his concern for her, she treats him as a person and not just as a gofer. She lets him down gently when it comes time to part. And whether or not their relationship became physical the film leaves open to question. For this, and also because it takes us into the process of movie making, this is a film I will cherish henceforth. A group could explore the nature of fame and celebrityhood and of the virtual industry that has arisen to cover the rich and the famous--and the beautiful.


Rated PG. Running time: 92 minutes

Belle begins to see beneath the ugly surface of her captor.
(c) Walt Disney Pictures

The Walt Disney studio gave us a wonderful Christmas gift, their delightful Broadway-style musical version of the classic tale Beauty and the Beast. It is so enchanting that adults can watch it in with or without children. The three disc Blu-Ray/DVD combo pact has a host of "extras," and now you can also watch it at theaters on a big screen in 3-D.

Like a number of Disney films since the revival of the studio twenty years ago, this one features a strong heroine with whom girls can identify and boys can respect. Young Belle's character is set forth in her opening song in which she reveals her love for books, her dissatisfaction with the local men, especially the vain bully Gaston, and her awareness that she does not fit in with the villagers. When her father is imprisoned by the dreaded Beast who lives in a huge castle, she sets forth to find him, offering to take her father's place.
The Beast had once been a vain, cruel prince who was put under the spell that disfigured him and transformed his servants into such items as a clock, a tea pot and cups, and a candela­bra. The spell can be broken only by someone who loves the Beast as he is. But if this does not happen by his twenty first birthday, he will remain a Beast forever. The love story progresses from Belle's initial repugnance to sympathy, and at last to...

 The animation is superb, the set piece being a beautiful  banquet and ballroom dance scene glowingly reminiscent of the dance of Anna and the King in The King and I. The camera seems to swirl in and out and around the pair, and then twirls up and down for zooming overhead shots. A fine film for the whole family with a lesson on being willing to be different, on sacrifical love, and and of course, that beauty is more than appearances. 

We Bought a Zoo

Rated R. Our Ratings: V –2; L –5; S/N –6.  Running time: 2 hours 4 min.


                                       Benjamin and his children and the zoo staff work together to
overcome a myriad of obstacles to get the zoo ready for opening day.
© 2011 20th Century Fox

Because it was released just a few months after the comedy Zookeeper, I expected little from this film dram/comedy. Again, what a surprise, to be so unexpectedly deeply moved by a film that does have its light moments, but deals so insightfully with grieving over the loss of a loved one. The screenplay by Cameron Crowe (remember his Jerry Maguire?) and Aline Brosh McKenna is based loosely on British journalist Benjamin Mee’s memoir. The locale is moved from Britain to Southern California, which is a good thing in that star Matt Damon does not have to strain for a British accent.

Damon is excellent as the California widower and father of Dylan (Colin Ford), his moping 14 year-old son, and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), his cheerful seven-year-old daughter. Memories of wife and mother Katherine (played in flashbacks by Stephanie Szostak) are still fresh and painful, with virtually every restaurant and place in the area associated in Benjamin’s mind with his wife. Thus when Dylan’s uncooperative attitude and dark artwork lands him in trouble at school, Benjamin determines to move from the area, despite the advice from his brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church). This means giving up his globe-trotting job as an adventurer reporter.

Duncan is virtually horrified to learn that his brother has decided to buy an old house on 18 acres of land that contains a rundown zoo. Dylan is equally upset at the prospect, not wanting to move away from his frriends, even though he has been expelled from his school. Little Rosie, however is almost ecstactic over the prospect, her exclamation as they drive away from the property giving the film its name, “We bought a zoo!”
Despite a welcome sign posted in the window of the cafĂ© just outside the property, the skeleton staff that has stayed on without pay to maintain the animals is skeptical about the new owner. Head of staff Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) is especially doubtful that a person with no prior experience with animals is capable of surmounting all of the formidable obtsacles that have led to the zoo’s closing. However, when Benjamin whole-heartedly joins in the day to day labor, and eventually risks all of his family inheritance to meet the zoo’s financial debts and mandated cost of improvements, she and the others come around. Not needing any such persuasion is Kelly’s 13-year-old cousin Lily (Elle Fanning), the girl who posted the welcoming sign on the day of the family’s arrival. Drawn to Dylan, she will have a difficult time overcoming his desire to go back to his old home.

Although the struggle to fix up the zoo so that it receives the okay of  the gruff state zoo inspector (John Michael Higgns’ Walter Ferris is closest to a villain in the film) is what drives the plot, the emotional heart of the story is Benjamin and Dylan’s grieving over the death of their loved one and its negative impact on the father and son relationship. This is well displayed in the sequence in which Benjamin resists ordering the terminally ill Bengal tiger to be put down. He has become quite attached to the creature. He faces the majestic animal at one point and urges the suffering big cat to get up and fight against his illness.

His final acceptance that the tiger must be euthanized is the turning point in his battle to let go of his grief over the loss of Katherine. In a beautiful celebratory flashback to earlier days Benjamin reruns in his mind the home movie clip of his wife and young children expressing their love of life through dancing around together. Graced with an ending sure to touch the heart, rarely has letting go been so beautifully rendered on screen.
Related to the the theme of letting go and moving on is that of courage, necessary in order to move on into uncharted territory. As Benjamin says, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” I suspect that every one of us, when facing something new, uncomfortable because of the risk, have had to find somewhere the courage to take the next step.

All those looking for a really good family film should turn out and support this movie. The charming performances of the child actors, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, and Elle Fanning will win the hearts of young and adult viwers, as will the various animals, many of whom, such as Buster the bear, Solomon the lion, and Spar the ailing tiger have distinct personalities. The human characters and story are secular, there being no hint that any of them turned to faith for dealing with death and sorrow, and yet people of faith will find much to embrace in the honest and open portrayal of the grieving process and the need to move outside one’s own perspective and feelings in order to heal the wounded soul. The zoo, the animals, and the dedicated staff all draw the attention, first of Benjamin and Rosie, and then at length, of Dylan, so that they all become caught up in a larger struggle than their own personal ones. Do not miss this film!

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