Reviews of My Week with Marilyn, The Descendants, Into the Abyss, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

In My Week with Marilyn, Monroe one-ups the controlling males by skinny-dipping with their “gofer.”
  • In My Week with Marilyn, Monroe one-ups the controlling males by skinny-dipping with their “gofer.”

Marilyn Monroe in England, Werner Herzog in Texas, George Clooney in Hawaii, Serge Gainsbourg in Paris (and next week, Scorsese’s Hugo in Paris). Off we go:


My Week with Marilyn 3.0

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Hardly anyone recalls that Marilyn Monroe won major French and Italian awards for playing Elsie in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). But then, how many people watch Monroe films for her acting? That is understandable but unfortunate, because in her self-doubting, highly specialized way she could be terrific. Laurence Olivier, though often wishing to kill her when he directed and starred with Marilyn, knew it.

That is the key fact of My Week with Marilyn, in which a great-acting Sir faces a great American star and sees that the camera will never love him as it so easily does her. I wish the movie elaborated on that by showing how, despite their radically contrasting knowledge and style, Monroe and Olivier were both intuitive searchers whose best work gambled on courage — no matter how much she bunkered into Hollywood vamping and he into theatrical bravura. You don’t get to moments like her slow, wistful dance toward a tree in The Misfits or his heartfelt, envious remembrance of an old blues singer in The Entertainer without offering up some soul.

As the creaky prince in the 1957 film, a packaging of what used to be called “Ruritanian romance” (the pinnacle was 1953’s Roman Holiday), Olivier retreated into royal mannerisms and a two-ton accent. He was fairly witty but hardly inspired. Kenneth Branagh plays Olivier with some humanity peeping through the stiff mannerisms. He goes half crazy as Marilyn blows lines, keeps everyone waiting, and obeys her adhesive Method coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker, cuddly as a blowtorch). As Monroe, the bold and fluent Michelle Williams rules Branagh’s Olivier almost as easily as she did the dog in Wendy and Lucy.

This bounce off the 1957 film, by director Simon Curtis and writer Adrian Hodges, is based on a memoir by Colin Clark, who was a “gofer” assistant on the movie (and also son of the esteemed art historian Kenneth Clark). The story quickly falls into the arms of Colin’s nervous crush on Monroe.

His brief idyll (how true, how fanciful?) is handled with touching smartness by gifted Eddie Redmayne. Colin knows he is being used, but what man fights being used by Marilyn? (Her husband Arthur Miller couldn’t — nor, later, writing about MM, could Norman Mailer.) This spoils Colin’s interest in a wardrobe girl, played with charismatic sparkle by Harry Potter beauty Emma Watson, who seems ready to carry a full lead.

By flaunting Colin, Marilyn one-ups the important, controlling males and even goes skinny-dipping with him. Her wiles are indulgent if not cynical, and Colin is so graciously available, so thoughtfully English. Williams, whose face can look closer to young Leslie Caron or Brit star Brenda De Banzie than to Marilyn, goes beyond the wow hair and lipstick, and she doesn’t rely heavily on the famous baby-sexpot voice.

Rich in nuance, Williams radiates the vulnerability of a natural who lacks self-esteem and doesn’t trust her talent. But when she turns on the sizzle and loves the kick of it, you can feel silly for worrying about her. She empowers this odd, gossipy, fetching movie.


Descendants 2.0

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In the Hawaii of The Descendants, Matt King (George Clooney) is a rich, handsome lawyer facing heavy pressure. His risk-driven, somewhat alienated wife is in a coma after a boating accident. His two upset daughters are full of snark. His many comfy cousins want him to sell 20,000 pristine acres of Kauai for which Matt is the highly ambivalent trustee. At times the story feels like The Little Foxes folded into a Hawaiian travelogue, as Matt heads off with the girls to track down a stranger who is also nibbling at the land deal.

The trip stays on Hawaiian time, with so little dramatic momentum that it’s almost another coma. This plodding disappointment from Alexander Payne, creator of the brilliant Sideways, is like a stressed holiday, a lachrymose luau. There is plenty of good scenery, Hawaiian singing, maybe the first-ever scene of crying underwater, a wee role for surfing-god Laird Hamilton, and some fine performances: Robert Forster as a grumpy gramps, Nick Krause as an amusing dork-dude, Matthew Lillard as a guilty guy, Judy Greer as his guiltless wife, and (the best) Shailene Woodley as Matt’s older daughter.

As for Clooney, nice try, but his beautifully haired handsomeness is only slightly dented by emotion.


Into the Abyss 3.0

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I went to Conroe when it was just a hick town, one of the rustic Texas nowheres in the flat pine country north of Houston. No need to return, thank you, but Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss hauled me back with compelling power. Overbuilt McMansions now thrive among the pines, but there are still plenty of backwoods in which to dump three bodies. Which teens Michael Perry and Jason Burkett did in 2001, before joy riding in a sports car stolen from one victim (the car was their motive). This begins to feel like a Southern branch of Michael Lesy’s great, disturbing book Wisconsin Death Trip.

They were quickly caught, claiming innocence but found guilty on strong evidence. The fearless German director, who will go anywhere, reached them in prison. Boyish, goofily smiling Perry would be strapped to the lethal-injection table a week after telling the diplomatic, almost priestly Herzog that he planned to soon be in heaven. Burkett lucked out. His dad, an old con as remorseful as drunken Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment, testified about Jason’s rotten childhood and got him a life sentence. The father’s sagging, shamed confession to Herzog is the heart of the movie, which is against capital punishment because, well, aren’t we all suffering humans?

Herzog is a squishy advocate (remember how he seemed to make a case for the bear-loving nut in Grizzly Man?) but an effective searcher. Everyone, including the convicts and devastated family members, has words that resonate. Herzog’s fabled luck still holds. Only he could have found the prison chaplain who, standing near potter’s field graves, turns weepy about having almost run over squirrels with a golf cart. And there is a sweet, daffy girl, so drawn to lifer Jason that she sees a rainbow over the prison as divine sanction. Into the Abyss, stripped to a very basic style, is less a true-life crime drama than a grimly candid slurry of abuse, waste, guilt, ignorance, and grief, though laced with love and furtive hints of redemption.


Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life 2.0

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Singer and composer Serge Gainsbourg (1928–1991) was a culture totem in France, but Joann Sfar’s partly fantasized tribute film loses something in trans-Atlantic translation. Based on Sfar’s graphic novel, this quirky homage is vivid in early scenes of Jewish child Lucien Ginsburg, boyishly teasing anti-Semites in Nazi-occupied Paris. The antic and artistic imp (Kacey Mottet Klein) is reminiscent of zany Zazie in Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le Métro, and he has a comical alter-ego — a bloated fascist caricature of a Jew, visualized as a giant puppet, Lucien’s personal riposte to his fears.

Whimsy withers when Lucien grows into adult Serge (Eric Elmosnino), a hard-smoking, wine-and-wenches guy who seems both cocky and scared. He is pushed from painting into music by a new, imaginary muse whose hook nose could have embarrassed even Fagin in Oliver Twist. The movie flaunts famous women: Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis), Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta), wife Jane Birkin (the late Lucy Gordon). All are ripe and ready to give scrawny Serge some well-fleshed comfort. Gainsbourg, a mutt and a runt, remains more pampered and provocative than heroic.

Reviewed in the movie capsules: Back Door Channels, The Muppets, The Other F Word.

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