Mini-Reviews: Martha Marcy May Marlene, My Week With Marilyn, Margin Call
In an attempt to give readers my feelings on films as I plug away on a number of writing assignments, I’ll provide mini-reviews to give my succinct opinion on films and to give me time to finish my other projects.
Martha Marcy May Marlene:
Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene is as impressive a debut as you’ll find in 2011. It’s a paranoid dream jumping back and forth in time, never revealing what is real, what is fantasy, and what is memory. It’s an achievement anchored by an intense acting debut by Elizabeth Olsen. However, since the film is about a woman’s attempts at self-protection, it holds the audience at arm’s length, letting them feel a sense of dread but leaving them rather cold emotionally. While I found Martha Marcy May Marlene very easy to admire and discuss, it’s not a film that is easy to get invested in, and thus it never completely lives up to the terrific promise it flashes.
We meet Martha (Olsen) as she is leaving a farm community. She calls her sister (Sarah Paulsen) for help and shelter, and she sounds incredibly distraught. We learn that she ran away from home and got sucked into this community, headed by a charismatic man named Patrick (John Hawkes). They have the inner workings of a cult, marked by independence from society, antiquated gender relations, and the looming threat of violence. Meanwhile, Martha tries to make sense of life outside of the cult living with her sister and her husband (Hugh Dancy). One night as the couple has sex, Martha climbs into bed with them and no idea why they freak out about it. As time passes, she feels the external presence of the cult closing in on her, and every noise, shadow, and familiar face sends her reeling. Is she merely experiencing paranoid delusions, or is Patrick’s community coming to take her back?
The film has an episodic structure, which builds mood but also builds a sense of repetition that hurts the forward progress of the narrative. Several moments pay off perfectly: Martha’s response to acorns hitting the roof, an everyday occurrence given new meaning… Martha’s communications with her sister’s husband, which toes the line between familial closeness and seduction perfectly… most memorably, Patrick singing a song that he wrote about Martha, showing us the depth of his charm and giving him a sincerity and heart that may not exist in a lesser film. Olsen and Hawkes are electric in nearly every scene. However, the line-toeing doesn’t extend to the end, as Durkin finds it necessary to reveal more about the cult’s dark exterior and the motivations behind Martha’s escape. These elements aren’t needed– the cult is plenty dark with its implications and relationships, and Martha’s fabric is coming unfrayed before the more extreme and melodramatic moments at the film’s end. It’s an imperfect ending, but the journey is still worthwhile as an examination of cult behavior mindset and, perhaps most important, the discovery of Durkin and Olsen as significant talents to watch.
My Week With Marilyn:
My Week With Marilyn is a romantic comedy, in the sense that it is comedic and it treats its subjects very romantically. It’s a piece of fluff anchored by one truly bewitching performance, but it has savvy execution, witty banter, and charm to spare. I’m not convinced that it’s a particularly revealing biopic or that it’s life-changing Best Picture fare, but that’s not really a knock against it– it’s akin to an extremely smart date movie, enjoyable for everyone, a biopic companion piece to the fantasy nostalgia Midnight in Paris and Hugo. We see both the gifts and the flaws of celebrities like Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, and Arthur Miller in addition to Marilyn as our outsider protagonist, and thus, the audience, gets to know them. While they may be facile characterizations, they’re charismatic and well-cast, and this Week is enjoyable time spent.
Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) gets his first job in the movie industry as an assistant on the Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) production, “The Prince and the Showgirl,” which has Great Britain all atwitter because it stars the most beautiful woman in the world, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams). While working on the film, as Monroe exhibits her eccentric and frustrating behavior, Clark begins to get her attention, and for a couple of days, they become quite close indeed. The film is struggling, Olivier is losing patience, his wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) is growing jealous, Monroe’s acting coach (Zoe Wanamaker) and manager (Dominic Cooper) keep halting progress, and Monroe’s husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) has zero desire to stay in England. It’s up to Clark to keep Monroe happy and on track, while attempting to not fall hopelessly in love with this woman who is trouble for every man she meets.
It’s a pretty safe bet that if you give British actors a witty script, you’ll have a good movie. Branagh, Wanamaker, and especially Judi Dench as an older actress have a great deal of fun tearing into this dialogue. Branagh and Wanamaker flaunt their characters’ egos beautifully (though Branagh’s Olivier initially struck me as no more than an impression, it settles in by mid-film nicely), and Dench continues to be one of the most reliable actresses ever– she just twists her words flawlessly. The entire movie sits on Michelle Williams’ shoulders, and she’s more than capable. I got lost in her performance, a pretty difficult feat when portraying someone as well-known as Monroe. She has the sensitivity, the fragility, and most importantly, her compelling nature; everyone in the movie can’t take their eyes off her, and she earns it. The movie doesn’t achieve much emotional depth, and it isn’t particularly revealing a biopic, but it does what it sets out to do incredibly effectively. Don’t expect a sad Marilyn Monroe tragedy– it’s a comedy with shadows of the tragedy that approaches, handled with humor and care.
The best debut this year is JC Chandor’s Margin Call, which is smart, focused, and more emotional than its icy exterior would let on. It examines complex subject matter and makes it clear for an audience without demoting the quality of the script to the lowest common denominator. Stylistically, the camera doesn’t do much more than point-and-shoot, but the actors are so strong (especially Kevin Spacey, who gives his best performance in years) and the dialogue so crisp that further affectations are needless. After the utter travesty that was Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, here’s a Lehman Brothers film with clarity of vision, wit, and a fresh feeling. Some may be turned off its talkiness– I found it exhilarating.
Peter (Zac Quinto) and his friend Seth (Penn Badgley) are junior risk management employees at a large investment bank who narrowly avoided a series of nasty layoffs. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), their boss and long-time employee of the bank, wasn’t so lucky. As he leaves, he hands Peter a USB drive of something he’s been working on and tells him to “be careful.” Curiosity gets the best of Peter, who discovers that Dale was onto something but couldn’t quite get the numbers right– Peter fixes it up and finds out that they are on the brink of potentially accruing losses that will sink the company. He gets his new boss Will (Paul Bettany) to examine the findings, and they call their bosses all the way up the line, from Sam (Kevin Spacey) to Jared (Simon Baker) to Sarah (Demi Moore) all the way to CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), to show up and discuss their options to alleviate this problem.
Here’s a movie that doesn’t simply blame the bankers for the crisis at hand. Some of their tactics are unquestionably irresponsible, but the economic crisis is as much in the hands of the 99% as it is the 1%. People are more than willing to take out loans, put multiple mortgages on their properties, and take out multiple credit cards to create the illusion that they have money– bankers are merely meeting the market demand any way they humanly came. “The only reason that they all get to continue living like kings is cause we got our fingers on the scales in their favor,” Will declares, and truly, a number of the bankers are mortified at the impending crisis not for personal reasons, but because they realize the world is about to sink and they will be the ones with their heads on the chopping block. This is such a refreshing approach to the issues of the banking crisis– taking the “evil investment banker” stereotype and filling it with shades of gray.
In a cast that could easily be dismissed as a bunch of white guys in suits, each character has a very distinct voice and personality– such is the power of this script. Quinto is great as the straight man who watches it all; he’s like a nerdier Keanu Reeves, which I mean as a compliment. Tucci does quiet and restrained work as the fired boss, Bettany shines in every moment as the spend-hungry man realizing his lifestyle is going to be altered drastically, and Simon Baker is tougher and more steely than I’ve ever seen him on TV or film. Jeremy Irons is at this point a treasure every time he’s in a film, as you can tell in his first scene, when he walks in and your eyes are never on the other stars in the room, only him. My favorite performance in the film is Kevin Spacey’s, who begins the day finding out news about his dog’ needing to be put down, and things get worse from there. He is the prototype of the vicious bank salesman at the beginning, but as time passes we see a very fluid, delicate transition to a new way of thinking. The movie also boasts a terrific ending scene, with sound effects that play over the closing credits that should give you the chills. Sound as metaphor for the state of America– a pretty bold move for a first-time filmmaker. What a relief that he pulls it off.