Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Movies About Movies? Here Are Two Worth Seeing!

Movies about the movies normally do not make very good movies.
In fact, you can count on one hand the films about Hollywood and the movies that turned out to be  successful.
A Star Is Born ranks as one of the more memorable ones. But for every "Star" there's a dud.
Consider the tons of others that went nowhere: Day Of The Locust (1975),  Hollywood Ending (2002),  Inside Daisy Clover (1965), The Last Tycoon (1977),  The Oscar (1966), Harlow (1965) and Valley Of The Dolls (1967).
And there are lots more of them that never measured up to the likes of Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Day For Night (1973).
Now along come not one but two movies about the movies and both turn out to be worth seeing. In fact, the buzz is that both the films and their stars will be Oscar contenders.

The first is My Week With Marilyn in which Colin Clark, an employee of Sir Laurence Olivier's, documents the tense interaction between Olivier and Marilyn Monroe during production of The Prince and the Showgirl, a 1957 film that Olivier directed and starred in. This film is based on Colin Clark's actual diaries from 1957 as well as his books "The Prince, The Showgirl and Me" and "My Week With Marilyn." Clark got a lot out of his role as a gofer on the movie (second or third assistant director) and the film does a lot with a little. At just shy of 100 minutes, it's tight and captivating.
As Marilyn, Michelle Williams has MM's looks and mannerisms down pat. She's playful one minute, pensive the next; seductive one minute, scary the next; delighted one minute, depressed the next. And throughout she's so well put-together, so full of star quality and so luminescent that she's absolutely compelling. Eddie Redmayne as Colin Clark once again demonstrates why he's one of our favorite actors in the whole world. In this role, his boyish charm and seemingly naive approach to his life and work belies a deeper understanding of things than one might imagine, not to mention a good and faithful countenance. As always, Dame Judi Dench is superb as Dame Sybil Thorndike. As Sir Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh is a bit too affected by half while the rest of the stellar cast (Emma Watson, Julia Ormond, Zoe Wanamaker and Dominic Cooper all perform superbly.
This film is a joy to watch and the script is literate and well-informed. It's an absolute feast for movie buffs (and for anglophiles) and its so remarkably true to its time and place that it's downright magical.

The next film about Hollywood is a total departure and an international sensation.
It's titled simply The Artist and (like the legendary Singing In The Rain) it focuses on Hollywood in transition from the silent era to the all--taking, all-singing, all-dancing era of sound.
The film follows silent movie star George Valentin who wonders if the arrival of talking pictures will cause him to fade into oblivion. In the course of the story he is smitten with Peppy Miller, a young dancer set for a big break. His story eventually becomes their story. Or, to put it another way, her story eventually becomes his story. Or something like that.
In fact, The Artist fairly closely parallels the story of two great stars of the era: John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. Gilbert was a great leading man and certifiable star but he had a tough time shifting from silents to sound. His temper made him difficult to handle and his penchant for drink led to bleaker days. Garbo was a rising star of the silent era and easily made the transition to sound, becoming an even bigger star. By all accounts she truly loved Gilbert but the enigmatic Garbo was unable to commit to marriage. She nonetheless reached out to help Garbo at pivotal points in his career and was instrumental  in keeping him working as long as possible.
The Artist is a French film with an international cast and a love of early Hollywood and the movies that defines it and makes it special. It's a deeply-evocative, poignant film made all the more meaningful because it is largely silent. The characters do not speak and in black and white, the film is faithful to its era. This is not to say that there is no sound in the film. The music is lush and wondrous and the various sounds are strategic and effective. And, from time to time dialogue cards tell us what the characters are actually saying.
But the acting is so great that we really don't need the cards.
Jean Dujardin as George and Berenice Bejo as Peppy are wonderful. Bejo is beguiling beyond belief. You can't take your eyes off her. Particularly notable among the cast are Malcolm McDowell (The Butler) John Goodman (director Al Zimmer), Penelope Ann Miller (Doris) and Uggi (Jack, the dog). Jack will positively steal your heart in this film, even if you don't count yourself as a dog lover.
Here's the irony: When movies were silent, movie sets were loud and boisterous. Directors coaxed and chatted with stars during filming and even arranged for live music to be played on the set to create the right mood for individual scenes. But once sound came in, movie sets became silent. Any extraneous sound interfered with the recording of the actors' voices.
Something vital -- something magical, mysterious and imaginative -- was lost when the movies began to speak. As Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) said in Sunset Boulevard: "We didn't need words, we had faces."

1 comment:

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