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Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times Knight at the Movies: My Week with Marilyn; Arthur Christmas; Carrie film note
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2011-11-23

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Celebrity biopics—especially of troubled or closeted Hollywood stars like Judy Garland and Rock Hudson—used to be staples of the TV-movie genre. (James Franco as James Dean, Cheryl Ladd as Grace Kelly and Sherilyn Fenn as Elizabeth Taylor spring to mind.) In the last little while, though, film audiences have begun to lap them up and so we now go to the movies to watch young actors portraying their cinematic forebears. But make no mistake—although the budgets may be bigger, the care gone into them more exacting and the actors of a higher, starry pedigree, these movies still offer the same junky pleasures as their TV stepchildren.

Case in point: There's My Week with Marilyn, which features hot stuff—current art house "It" girl Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier, Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh and Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller, as well as Zoe Wannamaker and Dominic Cooper as Monroe's coterie Paula Strasberg and Milton Greene. There are also Judi Dench (as Dame Sybil Thorndike), Derek Jacobi, Toby Jones and Emma Watson in a supporting role as the unrequited love interest of the film's leading character.

Said leading character would be one Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a young scion of the British aristocracy who was bitten by the showbiz bug and, through family connections, became a production assistant on Olivier's 1958 movie, The Prince and the Showgirl. The film, directed by Simon Curtis and adapted from Clark's memoir by Adrian Hodges, details the troubled production that increasingly finds Monroe at odds with Olivier—her director and co-star—and all the more reliant on sycophantic acting coach Strasberg (Wannaker, perfectly creepy), grouchy photographer-producing partner Greene (Cooper—wasted in a nothing role) and, eventually, Clark. Clark, naturally, has a mad crush on the world's most famous sexpot that, as the film tells us, was briefly returned in kind. (The movie leaves out Clark's memoir admission of a gay affair that also occurred during filming.)

Branagh has a great time hamming it up as the persnickety, short-sighted Olivier; Ormond is moving as the aging Leigh, whose marriage to Olivier was coming to an end; and Dench has several fine moments. Redmayne (who played the tortured, gay character in Savage Grace) is fine, if not particularly memorable, as the innocent lamb to the tough movie-making slaughter. However, it is Williams who really sets the movie apart. With a bit of a weight gain, her locks dyed the famed platinum blonde color, and dressed in recreations of the to-die-for '50s fashions, Williams eerily recalls the ethereal Monroe and her subtle shifts in mood really get at the heart of the often somnambulant girl-woman. She goes way beyond the breathy, easily imitated baby-speaking and singing voice (the film bookends with two musical numbers) and she brings off Monroe's odd mixture of vulnerability, toughness, resignation and knowingness.

This may be a case of one actress intuitively understanding another, and Williams' complex portrait of this endlessly fascinating woman elevates the movie. Although My Week with Marilyn doesn't really dig deep or offer much beyond its movie-star magazine glossiness its still marvelously fun and it does contain one unforgettable sequence in which Marilyn and Colin escape to the English countryside in what amounts to a dreamy, magical yet bittersweet interlude for both the characters and the audience.

The film's score, by Conrad Pope, is also worth noting, as is the sumptuous "Marilyn's Theme," which classical pianist Lang Lang played and Alexandre Desplat composed.

The idea that Santa and his elves have turned the distribution of presents every Dec. 24 into a major military operation—which is the premise of the animated children's movie Arthur Christmas—makes me more than a tad uneasy. Watching a covert op coordinated from a North Pole command center—with thousands of elves descending upon an unsuspecting city while it sleeps to sneak into houses under cover of darkness, aided by the latest night-vision gadgets, etc.—is more than a little creepy and is the antithesis of the traditional warm, fuzzy holiday movie.

The story pits Santa's two sons: Steve, the tough-as-nails super-achiever who commands the present delivery operation (and is given a gay, toady elf assistant) and the much klutzier, gentler Arthur, who answers holiday letters from the kiddies and still believes in magic. When a fault in the system occurs—one child is overlooked in the present delivery—Arthur determines he will use any means necessary to right the mistake. Once again we have the familiar story of jock vs. sissy in which macho, crass authority ("Christmas is not a time for emotions," Steve barks at one point) is shown to have plenty of kinks in its armor.

We are cued to root for daffy, good-natured Arthur and his offbeat companion (a punk elf sporting an eyebrow piercing) but it takes the movie, which belabors the military precision of the gift-giving with abundant zeal, a long time to come around to this point of view. In the process, the movie finds time to have the U.S. military blow up Santa's sleigh in what amounts to little more than a throwaway gag. While Arthur Christmas is certainly executed well (stuffed with more visual delights than the proverbial Christmas goose) and has a distinctive group of English actors (James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy) voicing it, the explosion was the moment I resigned my commission as objective film critic and took up the battle cry for sweeter, truly magical holiday fare (Miracle on 34th Street anyone?).

Film note:

Get out Your Bloody Prom Dresses and Crosses: How's this for a twisted, early Christmas present? Multiple Oscar nominee Piper Laurie will be in town on Sunday, Dec. 4, for a screening of the 1976 horror classic Carrie at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. As the religious fanatic Margaret White, mother to "creepy Carrie"—the outcast teen played by Sissy Spacek who ends up taking out most of her snobbish classmates during a very bloody prom—Laurie is sensational. Both she and Spacek were nominated for Oscars. Camp Midnight is presenting the event, called A Very Carrie Christmas, and will feature a wacky pre-show beginning at 2 p.m. featuring a costume parade, prizes and more.

Dick O'Day (my alter ego) and David Cerda, artistic director of Hell in a Handbag Productions, will host. A Q&A with Laurie will follow the interactive screening, which, in turn, will be followed by a book-signing of Laurie's new autobiography, Learning to Live Out Loud. (Books will be available for sale.) The event will partially benefit Handbag Productions. http://www.musicboxtheatre.com

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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