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Out of the Past: ‘My Week with Marilyn’ and ‘Hugo’

November 22, 2011

Hello, and welcome to my new blog! As you may know, I spent the past year-plus complaining about movies with my good friend Bret Watson under the guise of Two Cranky Guys. Well, Bret has decided to move on, and not a moment too soon, because—believe it or not—Hollywood has started to release a few films I like. (Blame it on Oscar season.)

Two of them, My Week with Marilyn and Hugo, harken back to an earlier era of filmmaking, when people actually made, you know, good films. Not that The Prince and the Showgirl—the dreadful Marilyn Monroe-Laurence Olivier vehicle that provides the backdrop for My Week—was one of them. But the story of its production, told from the POV of a PA (Eddie Redmayne) who fell for Monroe (Michelle Williams, bound for a well-deserved third Oscar nomination) on location in London, offers plenty of drama and comedy.

Most of the laughs come at the expense of Sir Larry (Kenneth Branagh, also a likely Academy Award nominee), who’s depicted as a stuffed shirt alternately bewitched, bothered and bewildered by Marilyn’s Method acting and her madness. Julia Ormond contributes a fine turn as Vivien Leigh, Olivier’s aging wife, but a romantic subplot with Redmayne and Emma Watson as a fellow crew member seems thrown in strictly to try and attract the Harry Potter crowd.

The movie belongs to Williams, as it should, and she makes the most of a risky role. She’s not an actress who naturally oozes Monroe’s sex appeal—and I suspect a butt double was required to reproduce Marilyn’s famously voluptuous figure from behind. But she captures Monroe’s quicksilver moods, from giddiness to despair in the blink of a false eyelash, without lapsing into a self-parodying female impersonation.

With Brokeback Mountain, Wendy and Lucy, Shutter Island, Meek’s Cutoff, Blue Valentine and now Marilyn, Williams is quietly building an impressive body of serious work, the likes of which Monroe no doubt would’ve wished to amass. And given what we know about Williams’ personal life, the parallels between Marilyn and Heath Ledger—two incandescent talents tragically snuffed out by the drug of fame—only make her performance more poignant.

Williams’ Shutter Island director, Martin Scorsese, reaches even further back into cinematic history with Hugo, about a 1920’s French orphan (Asa Butterworth, a find) who unwittingly befriends pioneering filmmaker Georges Melies (Sir Ben Kingsley, who may battle Branagh for best supporting actor). Although based on the brilliant children’s graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, this feels like one of Scorsese’s most autobiographical films. The movie could’ve been called Marty if Paddy Chayefsky hadn’t already taken that title.

As Hugo peers out at the bustling crowds through the clocks he fixes in the Paris train station where he lives, you can picture the undersized, asthmatic Scorsese watching life unfold through the window of the Little Italy apartment where he grew up. And as the boy develops a love for movies that connects him with his late father (Jude Law, the cast’s weak link), you can feel Scorsese’s passion for film—and film preservation—shining through.

Hugo was shot in 3D—not converted after the fact, as Scorsese pointedly noted at the film’s New York premiere—and the technology is finally used as a way of deepening the setting and storytelling, rather than a device to extract more money from moviegoers’ wallets. It’s utilized to great comic effect in the scenes with Sacha Baron Cohen, ingeniously cast as the stiff-legged constable determined to nab Hugo with the help of a doppelganger Doberman Pinscher.

A romantic subplot between Cohen and Emily Mortimer (smartly styled to look like a silent-film damsel) as a flower-shop girl proves charming, but renders obsolete another storyline between unlikely lovers played by Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour. Despite a few action-packed sequences—including a spectacular train crash—the film moves at a leisurely pace and may be too cerebral for the youngest of viewers. But sophisticated children and adults alike will find much to savor in Scorsese’s first family film… not including crime families, that is.

My Week with Marilyn and Hugo aren’t the only reasons to give thanks at the multiplex this holiday weekend. I also admired Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, with frequent Scorsese collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio triumphing over prosthetics in a truly fair and balanced portrait of the unambiguously gay g-man. And Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, with George Clooney as a Hawaiian dad who discovers his now-comatose wife cuckolded him, is the rarest of birds: a delightfully intelligent contemporary comedy-drama for grownups.

Such a cinematic cornucopia is enough to cheer up even the Crankiest Guy. And I haven’t even seen The Muppets yet!

What Hollywood offerings are you planning to sample this Thanksgiving weekend? Don’t be a turkey—post a comment!

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29 Comments
  1. I’ve been wanting to see Hugo. Gotta see it now. Thanks for the review.

  2. Jean Barton permalink

    Your beautifully written reviews pushed these three film to the top of our list. J. Edgar and Ides of March were our favorites last week…wonks that we are.

    • bruceafretts permalink

      Thanks, Jean–I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I liked The Ides of March as well.

  3. Thanks for inviting me, Bruce. It’s good to see your writing.

    Jeff

  4. A wonderful review of Hugo! Not living in NYC, I am not able to view My Week with Marilyn yet, but Hugo was fantastic. And I didn’t even get to see it in 3D! Check out my review and comment, let me know how it looks!
    http://allihavetosayaboutthat.wordpress.com/2011/12/17/hugo-2011/

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