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what i watched last week

My Week with Marilyn (Simon Curtis, 2011). This is barely more than a trifle, but Michelle Williams’ performance as Marilyn Monroe is so good, she overcomes any quibbles. The story is barely believable, even if it is true, and there’s something a bit uninteresting about a backstage look at a mostly-forgotten picture like The Prince and the Showgirl. Which leaves the acting to carry the movie. Judi Dench is wonderful as Dame Sybil Thorndike, although Emma Watson is wasted, and Julia Ormond’s Vivien Leigh is a bit off. Kenneth Branagh gets an Oscar nomination as Laurence Olivier, but what did you expect? It’s Branagh’s fifth nomination, and Olivier had a dozen or so nominations himself, so this Oscar nod was pretty much guaranteed the minute Branagh signed the contract. (In fairness, he does a good job in the role.)

Still, it’s probable that no one would be talking about this movie if it weren’t for Michelle Williams. You might think that playing a beautiful but damaged star from the past would be a surefire road to Oscar glory, but the truth is, Marilyn Monroe is not an easy character to play (just look at the actresses who have tried and failed). Monroe was playing herself, so anyone trying to play her risks being twice-removed from a real person. Yet Williams pulls it off, and then some. I’m not a big fan of Marilyn Monroe, but Williams made me feel for Marilyn in ways the real actress never did. For me, the highlight of the film came when Monroe, who has been spending quality time with her new friend, the third-assistant director on The Prince and the Showgirl, sees a group of fans ready to gawk. She turns to her friend (the “My” of the title) and whispers, “Shall I be her?” She then proceeds to do all the Marilyn things people expect. It’s a basic concept, but as Williams plays it, it’s also a believable look inside the person who “was” Marilyn Monroe. I haven’t seen the other Best Actress nominees, and there are some formidable names in there: Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, and lord knows Viola Davis ought to win an award for something. But Michelle Williams would be a very deserving winner. She is the reason this 6/10 movie receives 8/10.

(This week offers an interesting look at my goofy ratings system. The first movie that follows is a critically-acclaimed film from a highly-honored director … I was somewhat disappointed, and gave it 7/10. The second movie isn’t my cup of tea, but it is done so well, I gave it 7/10. The third movie is a low-budget semi-classic early-60s British horror film … I gave it 7/10. Obviously, the “7” in all of this means different things each time: in the first, that I’m willing to cut the director some slack; in the second, that I can be won over to material outside my normal range of enjoyment; in the third, that I can recognize something that is pretty good for its genre.)

La Ronde (Max Ophüls, 1950). I’ve long touted Max Ophüls as one of the finest directors, but in recent years, I’ve realized that I was a bit shortsighted. What I really meant to say was that The Earrings of Madame de … is one of the greatest movies (#14 on my Facebook list). The truth is, Madame de is the only one of his movies I’d seen, and I loved it so much from the first time I saw it that I assumed everything he made must be equally wonderful. Having now seen two others of the classics from his late period, Lola Montès and La Ronde, I know that while Ophüls had an immediately identifiable style, it’s only in Madame de that I fall victim to his efforts. La Ronde plays a bit like a warm-up for Madame, right down to the presence of Danielle Darrieux. La Ronde is lovely and sweet and ingenious, and there’s no reason why we can’t have a stylish film about love. Yet somehow, La Ronde strikes me as frivolous in a way I never feel about Madame de. #712 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

Beginners (Mike Mills, 2010). This film shows every sign of falling into a pit of cuteness. I’m not sure how it stays afloat, but it certainly does. “Cute” might seem a funny description of a movie that is in part about a man’s father dying, but seriously. There’s a dog, a Jack Russell terrier, who is introduced to us as part of a breed that used to be bred for hunting but now is bred for its cuteness factor. (Occasionally, we get subtitles telling us what the dog is thinking … awwww!) One of the two primary romantic couples “meet cute” … he dresses up as Freud for a party (and brings the dog along), she has laryngitis and has to communicate via little notes she writes (awwww!). The dying father isn’t dying for the duration of the film, which covers three time periods. He comes out of the closet at 75 after his wife’s death and enjoys an ebullient social life, along with a sweet boyfriend, charming everyone even as he begins the death process. Awwww! There are also quickie inserts to show us changes in pop culture over the years, grownups going on graffiti-painting adventures, and did I mention the main character is some kind of cartoonist? It’s all too precious, yet Mills rarely goes over the edge, and the cast does a wonderful job: Ewan McGregor as the cartoonist who doesn’t know how to love, Christopher Plummer, nominated for an Oscar as the gay dad, Mélanie Laurent as the actress with laryngitis, and Goran Visnjic as the boyfriend. It’s light with serious undertones, and you might like it a lot more than I did, since it’s not really my cup of tea, yet I liked it, too. 7/10.

Burn, Witch, Burn (Sidney Hayers, 1962). This week’s Creature Feature brings back Sidney Hayers, who also directed Circus of Horrors. Burn, Witch, Burn is a smart film that relies more on suspense than on special effects. There’s nothing unusual about the basic story (woman uses witchcraft to help her husband’s career, except husband is a non-believer), but it is told in a streamlined fashion, with effective cinematography and acting that ranges from subtle to not-quite-over-the-top. Peter Wyngarde as the husband removes his shirt as often as possible, showing off a fine, hairy-chested build that must have appealed to Alan Bates. Janet Blair, perhaps the biggest “star” here, is tolerable, and the rest of the British cast hits all the right notes. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is its setting: academia. Wyngarde plays a professor, and most of the first half hour is spent detailing the snarky in-fighting to get the job as head of the department. Of course women would resort to witchcraft in such a situation! 7/10. (Next week’s Creature Feature: Attack of the Puppet People, directed by the legendary Mr. B.I.G. himself, Bert I. Gordon. Your homework assignment is to watch it by next week.)