Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Irksome: My Week With Marilyn

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"My Week With Marilyn" is based on two books by Colin Clark: "The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me," and "My Week With Marilyn."

The first book is a fly-on-the-wall look at the making of the 1957 film "The Prince and the Showgirl," during which author Colin Clark was a "third assistant director," but was really just Sir Laurence Olivier's on-set gofer. It takes a very detailed look into the day-to-day, on-the-set production of what turned out to be a pretty mediocre movie.

I believe most of this book is true because I can see no reason why anyone would willfully make up something that is, for the most part, so boring.

As for the later book, which details his alleged week alone with Marilyn as they frolicked in the English countryside? Complete and utter fabrication. You just have to read both to see that one feels quite real (and mundane), while the other reads like the heated dream of an aging Englishman.

Aside from the fact that the movie is being sold as "based on a true story," it might not seem like whether the story is truth or fiction would matter, as almost all biographical tales have to be taken with some grains of salt. But in this case I find it irksome because what is being presented as truth is really just another male fantasy about "Marilyn Monroe," sex icon; broken little girl; man-eater; and drugged-up movie star.

The movie opens with Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) at the movies, watching Marilyn Monroe singing "When Love Goes Wrong" and "Heat Wave," but not in a scene reproduced from any actual movie. This is pure fantasy, and is our first introduction to Michelle Williams's Monroe, and it is an unfortunate one. Her voice is adequate enough, but her physicality is all wrong. She looks like she has a pillow shoved up her dress to replicate Monroe's ample derriere, and she comes off as a bad drag queen.

This opening stacks the deck against Williams, and she has to do a lot of work to erase that unfortunate beginning from our minds. I'm glad to say she does, for the most part, do that, (but then director Simon Curtis goes and ruins it all again by ending the film with another bad musical number).

The majority of the film takes place during the production of "The Prince and the Showgirl," the movie version of the play "The Sleeping Prince," in which Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) had starred with his wife, Vivien Leigh, (played by Julia Ormand here). Monroe has just started her own production company, and hopes working with the world's greatest actor will help Hollywood, and the world, take her more seriously as an actress. Olivier, on the other hand, is getting older, and hopes working with the world's biggest sex symbol will help him recapture his youth and a younger market share.

But they clash on the set. Olivier doesn't take to Monroe's "method" style of acting, or the constant presence of her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, (Zoë Wanamaker), and Monroe, who suffered from insecurities and stage fright, is constantly late to the set, flubbing her lines, or never showing up at all.

This, of course, drives Olivier insane. But as his co-star Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) points out, when Monroe does get it right, it's magic, and when she's on screen, no one can look at anyone else. (And she's right; Monroe is the only reason to watch that movie.)

Off the set, Monroe also clashes with her new husband, Arthur Miller, (inexplicably played by Dougray Scott), and her business partner, Milton Greene, (Dominic Cooper; I guess Williams was one of the only Americans allowed on set?), and Olivier assigns young Colin to keep an eye on Marilyn, and rein her in, if he can. Eventually they develop an affection for each other, much to the chagrin of Lucy, the young costume girl Clark is dating, (played by Emma Watson, in a part that is pretty pointless).

Soon Colin and Marilyn are escaping to the English countryside, skinny dipping, sharing a bed, and confessing intimate secrets to each other. It's a lovely fantasy, I suppose.

There's much talk of an Oscar nomination for Williams, though I think that's being a little generous. Now, I don't fault the casting of Michele Williams. Marilyn Monroe had a unique star quality that just can't be replicated. (If it could be, we wouldn't still be talking about her today.) And while Williams doesn't really look like her, (she's too skinny; too modern), she is a good actress, and perhaps that is the more important casting decision. (I'm sure there are plenty of actresses out there who look more like Marilyn, and who can do an uncanny impersonation, but impersonation and solid acting don't always go hand-in-hand.)

But the movie is, really, pretty standard stuff, and the screenplay Williams has to work from doesn't rise above the many Marilyn cliches we've seen in countless biopics before. She does the best that she can, but even Williams at her best can't convey the absolute magic Marilyn was able to project on screen in even her worst movies. Monroe could make a movie as bad as "The Prince and the Showgirl" watchable, but Williams can't save "My Week With Marilyn."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Man's Inhumanity To Man: Into the Abyss

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I'm a sucker for a good true crime story, and have probably watched more episodes of "48 Hours Mystery" and "Dateline" than would be considered healthy. But even better than shows like those is a good true crime feature film. "The Thin Blue Line" and "Paradise Lost" are two movies that play out even better than the best fiction, and went on to actually change history and the lives of its subjects.

Werner Herzog's "Into the Abyss" is an odd sort of true crime documentary, less interested in investigating the guilt or innocence of its subjects than it is in documenting the effects a truly thoughtless crime has on everyone involved, from the perpetrators and the cops who catch them, to the victims' families, and almost everyone in between.

The crime in question was committed in 2001 by Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, two teenagers in Conroe, Texas, a town outside of Houston. Their original intent was to spend the night at a friend's house and then steal his mother's Camaro while everyone was asleep. Things didn't go as planned, and by the end of the evening, a 50-year-old mother and two teenage boys were dead.

All for a Camaro.

The details of the crime are laid out pretty graphically via a lot of crime scene footage shot by the police, although just how the whole night played out isn't explained in the clearest of ways.

Michael Perry eventually got the death penalty and Jason Burkett got a life sentence, and Herzog interviews both of them in jail, Perry a mere eight days before he was scheduled for execution. Both of them deny their guilt, basically blaming the other for the ultimate crime.

Why Burkett got off with a life sentence is made pretty clear. His father--who is also in jail--spoke at his sentencing, pleading for his son's life. That won over the jury. It is alluded to that Perry's family wasn't as supportive, but other than that, Herzog doesn't go into just why Perry ended up on death row while his friend did not. And this is a little frustrating.

Again, Herzog's intent here isn't really to document a crime, or argue for the guilt or innocence of the people involved, but the imbalance in the narrative, with much more focus on Burkett than on Perry, harms the film.

Some of the other subjects interviewed by Herzog--who never appears on camera, and whose voice is only heard when asking his subjects questions--include members of the victims' families; a death row pastor; a former death row guard; friends of the victims and killers; and, most spooky of all, a woman who ended up marrying Jason Burkett from behind bars.

Herzog gets his opinion about the death penalty out of the way quickly, stating that he's against it, but that doesn't mean he has to like the person who's on death row, so the movie isn't really an "issue film" either. Still, it would be hard to come away from a viewing feeling really positive about the state of capital punishment in this country.

In fact, it's hard to come away from "Into the Abyss" feeling positive about much of anything; it's pretty depressing. Yet, the film is subtitled "A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life," and some glimmers of hope do emerge. Ultimately, life itself, both as a force of nature, (random encounters with wildlife dramatically affect some of the subjects in the film), and in the very human will to survive, prevails, even in the face of man's--and the law's--inhumanity to man.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Death, Drugs, And Dummies: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I saw "A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas" while sick and slightly feverish, and I can only think this helped the viewing experience. Of course, the ideal viewing experience would involve seeing it totally stoned, and any theater manager who calls the cops or kicks someone out for firing up once the lights go down is obviously a Scrooge who hates Christmas. And possibly America.

It's been a few years since "Harold and Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay," and there has been a rift in the toasted duo's friendship. Harold (John Cho) is now a rich Wall Street executive trying to avoid the egg-tossing protesters outside his office so he can get home to his hot Latina wife (Paula Garcés) and welcome her father home for Christmas. Her father is played by Danny Trejo, and that, to me, is this 3D movie's best joke: Is there any actor whose face you'd like to see less in 3D than Danny Trejo's?

Meanwhile, Kumar (Kal Penn) is a perpetually stoned med school drop-out loser who spends his days pining after an ex-girlfriend and smoking lots of weed purchased from the local mall Santa (played by Patton Oswalt). A mysterious box left at his front door leads him to a reunion with Harold, and their ultimate Christmas Eve quest to replace Harold's perfect pine Christmas tree, which had been lovingly grown for 12 years by his terrifying father-in-law, but was accidentally burned down by Kumar.

The film plays out as you would expect a "Harold and Kumar" movie to, with the duo facing death, drugs, and dummies in the course of a very long evening. I didn't exactly laugh my ass off, but I did have the stupid grin you'd associate with someone stoned out of their minds through most of the movie's 90 minute running time.

And I did genuinely laugh at most of the moments involving Harold's friend Todd (Thomas Lennon) and his three-year-old daughter, who ends up ingesting more drugs than Harold and Kumar in all three movies combined. If you find the thought of a child getting high on pot, coke, and ecstasy to be in bad taste, well, you aren't seriously thinking about seeing a "Harold and Kumar" movie, are you?

You should also probably avoid this movie if the sight of dicks, boobs, Santa with a gaping head wound, or racist jokes of all stripes offend you. Because you're gonna get all that, and it's all going to be flying right at your face via some impressive 3D effects. (I tend to hate 3D, but there is absolutely no reason to see this movie unless you see it in 3D. You can practically get a contact high from all that hovering CG smoke.)

Neil Patrick Harris, of course, returns, playing "himself," (if you thought he died in the last one, you obviously left before the credits were over), and this time the jokes centered around his sexuality fall a little flat. Thankfully, the ridiculous musical Christmas number he's a part of makes up for it.

And yes, November 4th is too early for a Christmas movie to come out. It's too early for stores to be stocking their Christmas loot, it's too early for lights to be put on those outdoor trees, and it's too early for anyone to have to be worrying about a holiday that is basically two months away. It's enough to drive someone to heavy drug use.