My Week with Marilyn

Simon Curtis may only have TV movies in his body of work, but My Week with Marilyn deserves to be on the silver screen. This is a great film that made me think a lot about Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles and wish it could have been more like this was. Curtis directs with a warmth and love for his subjects that’s immediately noticeable. He himself may have very well been the character of Colin Clark, the young man of which the titular week with Marilyn is spent.

Comparable to the way The Artist  plays with the professionalism and theory of acting as a classic art form, My Week with Marilyn tenderly reflects the unseen qualities of Marilyn Monroe’s ability as an important actress as opposed to a movie star. She is plagued by self-image issues, many of which were never alleviated (or even mediated) by any of her handlers or suitors, until Colin. It’s a perfect pairing in that he is so utterly without self-importance when around her that he is able to focus all importance on her, lifting her to the place she wants to be for the moment.

Too much of a good thing is quickly had though by both parties involved, and inevitably their relationship, as fleeting as it was, will come to a bitter end. This will do much to sober Colin up, but he will remain without ever realizing or finding what he truly wants, in order to make him happy. It’s not obvious at the beginning, but Colin and Marilyn are very much alike on the inside; very much opposite on the outside.

Colin will effectively lose what he wants most and will have to rebuild, just as Marilyn would have to do if she’d the will to stomach the loss and unpredictability of the future. Michelle Williams plays an eerily pitch-perfect Marilyn who is lit so gorgeously by Ben Smithard and made up so perfectly by the makeup department, that it’s simple to slip right into the story and feel like Monroe is alive again. Biopics are notoriously long, overwrought and hard to fall in love with, but My Week with Marilyn is a welcomed vacation despite its inevitable sad ending.

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Hunger

Hunger may have been directed by Rembrandt. At least, he had to be the cinematographer. This film is glorious to watch in all its squalor. Ninety percent of the film is set in the gleaming, industrial Irish institution that is almost comically known as Her Majesty’s Prison Maze (referred to here as just the Maze). The other ten percent of the film takes place outside the prison walls, just long enough to depict the justifiably paranoid lifestyle of one of the British guards.

The rancor that comes with watching Steve McQueen’s incredible Hunger is almost tangible in your living room. Yet everything about this film screams beautiful new-Asian cinema, such as Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, (I’m re-appropriating the term “new-Asian cinema” for myself here, because I’d rather a film like Poetry take that credit, than the recent run of torture-horror flicks that seem to flood the Asian-via-America cinema markets). McQueen’s cinema is about experience. He wants to make you submit to his story when the lights go down. So get your color bars adjusted, fire up the Blu-ray and crank up the volume on the surround.

As McQueen himself says about the film, he wants to take you on a journey through the Maze, but bring you in two different ways. We see the guard as he begins his shift and we also see the new IRA prisoner Davey as he gets processed and immediately refuses to conform to the standards of the prison by not wearing their uniform. He is promptly delivered to his cell, naked, where he finds the walls that hold him in covered in fecal matter and his cellmate starved, unshaven and unwashed.

The incarcerated IRA here are on a no wash protest and so every so often the guards have to pull them from their cells, dragging them to a place in the prison where they can hold them down, cutting their long hair and beards with oversized pairs of shears and subsequently throw them in a bathtub, run a bar of soap over them and drag them back to their cells. Prison life gets worse as the film progresses and another scene depicts riot police called in to basically beat, and at turns violently and degradingly search the prisoners.

After a brutal and somehow expected killing of the British prison guard whom we are initially introduced to, comes the best scene in the film: a nearly twenty-minute, unedited, static two-shot where a priest attempts to convince the prisoner Bobby Sands not to start the hunger strike he’s planned out in his head. As opposed to other IRA-prisoner-led hunger strikes, Sands has the fortitude to envision this one happening on a more cataclysmic scale, basically tiering the order of the men who strike, so the strike can never really cease. The purpose of his tiered approach is to create more opportunity for serious casualty if the the Queen doesn’t respond, whereas in previous hunger strikes, all the men just stop eating at the same time in a more clumsy act of rebellion.

It’s a hugely integral scene to the film and a hugely integral moment in Sands’ life. His conversation with the priest is at turns witty and devastating as it soon becomes clear that his martyrdom is inevitable. Aside from the clear aesthetic reasons for shooting the scene this way – there’s no chance for the viewer to escape the inevitability of his fate as Bobby virtually confesses his premeditated suicide to a priest – it’s the filmmaker’s tool for catching you up from the entire first third of the film which had little to no dialogue. It’s now also been touted as the longest shot in a film.*

From this point on, we are forced to watch as Bobby destroys his body from the inside out. While the first third of the film is rooted in a sense of gritty, British cinema realism, the middle is a segue with priest and confessor that stands out as a slice of American independent cinema from the 70s, and the final stretch of Hunger is almost Bergman-esque avant-garde.

There’s an amazing sequence where Sands, virtually immobile, bed-ridden, malnourished and delusional, follows a crack in the ceiling above him all the way down to the wall, where the crack ends and the POV framing reveals himself as a young ghost, standing there, staring back at him. The film goes out on a relatively high note even though while he disintegrates in real life, we watch him as a lean, young man, racing through the woods near a river (which we’re familiar with from a story he tells the priest). Abruptly, he stops dead in his tracks. The foliage around him is a deep emerald green and the water of the river flows alongside. He looks over his shoulder behind him.

It’s really the perfect ending to his life.

Bobby Sands was not the only prisoner to die during this hunger strike. Nine other men did as well, ultimately prompting British government to yield to the IRA’s demands. During the strike Sands was also elected to British Parliament representing two counties in Ireland.

Editorial Note: As I was scouring the ‘net for some good stills from the film, I came across a Guardian article from November 2008 where – what did I find but this pictorial comparison of McQueen’s film to a Rembrandt painting! I find this extremely interesting, in that, when I began writing this and that first sentence came out where I compared the images in Hunger to Rembrandt, I had not heard of any comparisons as such, and I thought anyone who read mine would think me merely proselytizing on the side of the critic-debate that Hunger is more concerned with style over substance. While, granted, it is very stylistic, it’s not so in a way that I believe detracts from the film. As I detailed above, I find the film to be inspired by various cinematic movements and styles and I feel like it blends them all together to create a portrait of a man that surely could not be summed up in the most straight forward of terms.

What We Do Is Secret

The L.A. punk rock scene in the late ’70s produced a lot of noteworthy bands and even more one-hit wonders. None was so “one-hit” though as The Germs. Punk, as a subculture, is no stranger to violence and self-destruction, but L.A. punk was more clean-cut in its appeal than East Coast punk. More… glamorous. If there’s one area in which this cult classic-aspiring film What We Do Is Secret does excel, it’s depicting the systematic destruction of a punk icon by his need to maintain image.


Let’s break it down. First there’s the blue circle: perfection; a branding; lead singer Darby Crash (played by Shane West) always wears it. But the idea of punk rock is to not subscribe to a branding or perfection, so it seems in direct opposition to any punk band’s way of life. I think that’s what bothers me most about The Germs and singer Darby Crash in general. What’s more, this (in places) badly acted biopic of the rise and fall of the band hints at this same concern of mine (whether or not they intended too).

The Germs basically are started in a fit of milquetoast boredom. They don’t know how to play any of their instruments, the singing is less than spectacular, but the lyrics of Crash are decent and youthfully powerful. On their first gig, Crash feels compelled to slash himself across the chest with a shard of broken glass, in maybe in an effort to appear violent or menacing, but all he ends up looking is disillusioned. At any rate, the crowds in the punk scene are looking for anything that involves cutting or bashing or breaking or beating, so Crash finds himself causing disarray and horror at many of their following gigs. Once they get a bad name for themselves (with club owners), they basically can’t play anymore in L.A.

Do they every consider going anywhere else? No. Or, at least not Darby. But just when you think punks don’t travel, he heads off to London in a vain attempt to forget the capitalist suckling he’s been doing on both his mother-figure of a groupie/manager and the whatever little reward came of The Germs’ debut album getting a release. He comes back from London (where he was impressed by music that would not appear to be his style, e.g. The Go-Go’s, Adam and the Ants) with a mohawk and plays one final show in L.A. (the only one that will book him). When no one at the L.A. gig gets the new image (which you’d think the idea of being different was part of a punk rocker’s joie de vivre) the next time we see him he’s changed his hairstyle.


This film doesn’t do anyone justice and certainly doesn’t make any great, defining points. The Germs were always overshadowed by their own scene, always concerned with their own appearance and style and many of the members (who stayed on the longest) wanted to do something more with the band. The film also lightly infers Crash was homosexual, but then suddenly seems to drop it. At the end we see where apparently Crash died on the same night as John Lennon, so of course he was overshadowed by that too. Oh well.

Shane West apparently garnered some appreciation somewhere in his role as lead singer of The Germs, as the band reunited and have been touring with him since. Too bad I’ll never see them.

Man on Wire

The defining moment in Man on Wire for me was about 20 minutes into the film when footage of the World Trade Center towers being constructed is shown in all it’s grainy, faded glory. Seeing again those massive triple-beams cross-hatched in almost puzzle-like pieces, being hoisted above stacks of steel rebar, sheets of metal, blocks of concrete and a persistent lingering of beige dust, could only make me think of one thing. The beautiful irony of the whole movie is that when numerous gratuitous documentaries have been made about the WTC catastrophe, each with their special blend of film and video footage of that infamous day and its Dante-like aftermath, Man on Wire never once recalls that terror and in addition offers up this glorious peek at the landmark’s birth.


But, ok, that’s not what the film is about. Man on Wire is a documentary about Philippe Petit, a tightrope walker (and all-around interesting guy) from France and the intricate plot he exacted just after the birth of the WTC: walking on a single steel wire which him and some friends strung between the two towers over night. It’s a truly fabulous story and one which Petit himself made into a book. He was writing it in 2001 when the towers fell.*


1,350 feet in the air, in the wee hours of the Manhattan morning fog, Petit dressed all in black walked, knelt and laid down on the wire he’d spent the night setting up. He had crossed back and forth at least eight times before the New York City Port Authority and police yanked him in from the clouds. Neither wind, nor nerves, nor helicopters could knock him down, although he himself claimed he thought the feat something of a death wish. The film primarily deals with how Petit and his band of accomplices planned, developed and exacted such an event without being caught, spotted or stopped. Even more interesting is the reaction of the police and city officials who while taking the matter seriously (deporting the non-Americans involved), dropped all charges against them and actually gave Petit a lifelong all-access pass to the rooftop of the WTC.

Bittersweet is a single photo of Petit straddling a steel beam on the rooftop on which he’d dated and signed his name. Now the photos are all that remain. Man on Wire is chock-full with archival footage of Petit and even some of his other unconventional tightrope displays (Notre Dame, Sydney Harbour Bridge), glossy interviews with just about everybody involved in the project, and nicely detailed dramatic reconstructions of the day-long hideout at the WTC and the preparations of that night leading up to the trick. All-in-all there is nothing this film doesn’t deliver upon and nothing you can do but watch in awe as the titular man’s circus-wit, charming effervescence and steely nerves endure a feat most of us wouldn’t even dare to dream about.

*Lazarovic, Sara. “The Daredevil in the Clouds.” National Post Monday. September 9, 2002.

You Don’t Know Jack

Jack Kevorkian. Which ever side of his principles you find yourself on, there will still be something you can relate to in this made-for-HBO flick by Barry Levinson. Levinson has a number of comedy-drama biopics under his belt and he knows how to keep this one intriguing. Kevorkian alone is a pretty intriguing guy–let’s be honest, but Levinson’s addition of his comic-relief sidekick in the gregarious John Goodman is a smart touch. Kevorkian on his own accord (as he is at the end of the film), is just a somber man.


Levinson went little overboard with the whole “case-file” style of itemizing the death’s by number. I could have done without that prime-time TV post-production addition. This is really a film that’s all about story, the visuals are relatively uninspired and seem only as interesting as the scene needs them to be. The film is holding itself back from becoming a soapbox, and it’s really about the idea and purpose that Kevorkian found himself attracted to and to which he was ultimately devoted for the rest of his life.

Prison was a mere inconvenience for him and lawyers were of no use as he could see it, he had to be talked into the one he had on his side. I use “on his side” here loosely, as we come to find out that the attorney for Kevorkian through the initial stages of his “assisted suicide” self-made career, was actually less interested in Kevorkian’s cause as he was Kevorkian’s public image. The film feels less biographical and more narrative in its approach as we are thrown into the story at beginning watching Kevorkian as he peers helplessly into the hospital room in which his mother lies. She’s in solitude in the throws of the death-rattle and it becomes immediately apparent that this was personal for Kevorkian all along.

Pretty soon everyone who is close to Jack is either dead, dying or alienated. I believe he was a severely emotional man, one who was easily misunderstood due to his radical thoughts and unconventional view on life and death, and one who wasn’t able to express what he was feeling other than reaching out his hand as best he knew how. As with any great emotional investment in something, when it becomes threatened and has to be moderated, those emotionally involved can and will likely act or appear irrational. Kevorkian himself, grew a little irrational, believing that he was doing something that would take societal hold in a matter of years.

Al Pacino plays Kevorkian to a obsessive-compulsive, dictatorial, heart-warming tee and he and Levinson keep the of-late, overacting effervescence (and spit) to null. Despite the easily enhanceable likeness of Pacino to Kevorkian, it would seem their personas and styles would completely repel; however, Pacino here has made an easily disregarded man very much a man to be regarded. Quickly overshadowed and kept that way since the 90s, his cause is one to be considered for more debate, though it likely won’t see that for some time – if ever. Like many other things in Jack’s life, it appears his cause is doomed to die.

Bronson

“Britain’s most violent prisoner” is apparently a real person. His real name is Michael Peterson, but he likes to be referred to as Charles Bronson (as in, yes, that Charles Bronson). In his midnight movie styled biopic, edgy director Nicloas Winding Refn takes a stab at sensationalizing his violent tendencies. This film decides not to delve into any of the other sides of Michael other than that of his most horrible. It doesn’t work; it only comes across as exploitative. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen plenty of amazing films centered on unredeemable characters, but this one is like an episode of Spartacus: Blood and Sand: pointless with latent homoerotic undertones.


In the trailer, I saw some critic’s reference in promotion of the movie to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. That’s absurd. The similarities of this film to A Clockwork Orange end at the post-release, reformed prisoner addressing an auditorium of tux clad sympathizers about how his upbringing was terrible. Alex in Clockwork at least begins to develop and emote palpable feelings as Kubrick’s film progresses, even if they are because he’s been virtually lobotomized in an effort to quell his violent nature. Michael, however, (in the film, anyway) never once seems to care about anything more than hurting someone, even when you think that maybe he’s coming around, he fails you. It seems, in fact, that the only people he never actually hurt (as this film would tell it) were his parents and whatever woman he was with at the time.

Michael Peterson like many lifelong or recurring criminals seems to feel like prison is where he belongs. This is the strand of narrative that interested me the most, but it’s never expounded upon. He’s said to have spent almost 30 of his 34 years in prison in solitary confinement; most of what we get to see is how he always managed to end up in solitary (or prison in the first place). Nothing ever really comes together in this film though; he keeps being moved around from prison to prison, and the cells keeps getting smaller and smaller.

There appears to be a glimmer of hope towards the end as Michael takes up art as a prison pastime; however, when the warden shrugs off the painting which he has just created, the next thing we know is he’s back to his old self again. So is it really just an insatiable need for attention that drives our Bronson wannabe to constant brutality? I am led to believe so, but after the credits roll, I fain to care.

Coco Before Chanel

Coco Chanel wasn’t really Coco, she was Gabrielle Chanel. Not fond of the Coco moniker as a young woman, it seems poignantly odd that she would take it as the name for her product line later in life. This is only one of the austere unconventionalities of Ms. Chanel, a woman who also refused to style herself after, literally, any woman of the time. Not only did she dress different, but she carried herself different, thought different, dealt with men different, and effectively ended up different than probably many of the women she knew.

All these character traits (and more) seem charmingly and effortlessly espoused by the magnificent Audrey Tatou. If Tatou didn’t fall so well into this role, it would be an easy film to pass off as trite, foreign independent arthouse drama. The idea of the unacceptable love affair that brews between Coco and “Boy,” her English playboy who she later finds out is marrying an heiress to a coal fortune, is brilliantly played out in the final acts of the film. She’s at first hurt and dismayed at his unfaithfulness to her, but once he offers to cover startup costs for her hat-business in Paris we find her easily swayed. I’ll admit, this is the turn I was waiting for the storyline to take, but in retrospect I feel bad that I kept assuming Chanel would build her empire on the foundation of another’s coin.


I believe she was sincere in her love for Boy, but it takes the better part of the film to determine where her sincerities lie. In some respects, I tend to think that she kept the Coco name in an effort to keep alive the memory of her lover, confidante and similarly nicknamed business partner (who was at once empathetic to her dislike for Coco). When we’re forced to watch her destroyed at the site of Boy’s car accident (one that she would have been in had she actually went with him), we can’t help but pay close attention in the next scene to her nonexistent facial expressions as she sits on the mirrored spiral staircase of her studio watching the trail of towering models slink past in all their monochromatic Chanel glory.

Was her (soon-to-become ubiquitous) work outside of hat-making the result of a need to fulfill what she’d lost? It’s the question that seems ultimately answered as she cracks the coolest of French smiles before the credits roll.