Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Artist Paints a Nostalgic Picture

It’s black and white. It’s silent. And it’s French. But don’t let that turn you off from The Artist, probably one of this year’s most pleasing big-screen gems. What it’s lacking in dialogue, it makes up for in vibrant performances, an expressive score and deft visual cues. Part Singin’ in the Rain, part A Star is Born and part Charlie Chaplin film, The Artist gives us nostalgia without feeling stale.

It takes place in 1927, when motion picture making is on the brink of sound. Hollywood’s biggest silent film star is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a dapper fella who can rock a tux and charm an audience with a raise of his eyebrow. He’s got the movie-going public - and the studio - in the palm of his hand and he knows it. At one of his big premieres, he quite literally bumps into one of his biggest fans - a pretty young thing named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). Their picture gets snapped together and just like that Peppy becomes George’s “mystery girl” in all the papers.

Her newfound “fame” is just the confidence boost she needs to audition as an extra on George’s latest film. George and Peppy have instant chemistry - they both can go toe-to-toe on the tap dancing floor. The seasoned actor sees the eager young ingenue’s allure and takes her under his wing. But just like in A Star is Born, the student is destined to outshine the teacher. Especially when the rise of talkies begs the need for fresh talent.

It’s not that George gets pushed out - he simply refuses to get on board. While the studios start cranking out films with the latest sound technology, George dismisses it all as a passing fad and sets out to make his own silent film. His refusal to move into the future is what ultimately makes his future a bleak one. He must forgo his pride or face living in obscurity forever.

In less capable hands, The Artist could have been a gimmicky mess - a parody of sorts. Or it could have been too, well, artsy, thus alienating the average moviegoer. But filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius has done his homework. He knows what made the classics great and he applies those elements to his own film, giving all the old timey tricks a more polished finish. There are barely any words - just the occasional title card to give context to a scene - but the film is still a rich experience. The score plays throughout, and there’s even a dream sequence where sound is used for clever effect. You never feel as if anything’s missing. 

He may have been silent, but the Oscar buzz for French actor Jean Dujardin is almost deafening. He’s perfect for this part in every way. He has Old Hollywood good looks, but much like the actors of that time, his face also has character. He uses expression and body language so well that you forget he’s not saying anything at all! His George Valentin goes from cocky to desperate, and all the while you continue to like him.

Dujardin has an equally adept partner in Berenice Bejo, who plays Peppy. With a glowing smile and a buoyant personality, it’s not easy to see why Peppy becomes a big star. We begin to feel the same adoration for her as her audience in the film.

There are also appearances by some familiar American faces, but they almost seem out of place here. John Goodman plays a big-time studio exec, James Cromwell plays George’s trusted chauffeur and confidante, and Penelope Ann Miller plays George’s neglected wife. The movie’s feel was such a throwback, I really didn’t expect to see anybody I recognized. But perhaps the award for best supporting character goes to George’s dog, a trusty terrier much in the vein of Asta, the loyal pup from The Thin Man series of the 1930s or George, the mischievous dog in Bringing Up Baby. The scrappy scene-stealer was a treat to watch - and he also plays a pivotal role in the story.

My one gripe is that George’s fall from grace drags on a bit too long. It takes a while for him to fully hit rock bottom and find the strength to pick himself up again. You may get frustrated with him as he rejects Peppy’s well-meaning attempts to help get him back on track. But, as I said, the film is ultimately a crowd-pleaser, and you’ll be smiling ear-to-ear by the end. I certainly was. Sometimes, silence really is golden.

You can also find my review on!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My Take on My Week With Marilyn

You’d have to be pretty brave to take on the role of iconic sex symbol Marilyn Monroe. Thank goodness Michelle Williams seems to have courage to spare. In My Week with Marilyn (out Nov. 23rd) she embodies the blonde bombshell with a confidence that most young actresses couldn’t even dream of achieving. She has the Marilyn “wiggle” down to a science - achieved, she said, by practicing walking with her knees tied together. She has the Marilyn sparkle - her childlike abandon. And on the flip-side, she evokes the Norma Jean insecurities. The vulnerability and the need to be loved. The desperate desire to be a person of worth. It’s this duality - Marilyn vs. Norma Jean - that elevates Williams’ performance from mere imitation to a deeper representation of a person’s humanity.

My Week with Marilyn is not a Marilyn biopic - it’s more of a Marilyn snippet. A glimpse into a period of her life as seen through the eyes of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a young, eager third-assistant director on her film The Prince and the Showgirl, which began filming in London in 1956. The story is based on Colin’s diary from that time in his life, and includes his observations of the star as she allows him to get close to her and as he becomes more and more infatuated with her.

The film is mainly split between on-set antics and off-set moments. On set, Colin watches wide-eyed as the film’s director and star, Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), butts heads with the difficult Marilyn. Olivier fumes as she shows up late, brings along her own “acting coach” of questionable credibility, and botches her lines time and again. The Prince and the Showgirl was notorious for its tumultuous on-set atmosphere, mainly due to the fact that Olivier and Marilyn just didn’t understand each other. He admired her vivacity and innate talent, to be sure, and Marilyn respected and was intimidated by his serious acting background. But even that couldn’t break the ice between them. Olivier was reportedly so fed up by his Prince and the Showgirl experience, that he pretty much abandoned directing after that.

But here’s the thing, when Marilyn got it right, boy did she get it right. There was no denying her charm - even Olivier could see it.

Off set, Marilyn had a whole other set of problems, and we see Colin as he slowly becomes privy to them. Her recent marriage to playwright Arthur Miller is already on the downslide, she’s clearly addicted to alcohol and pills, and she’s surrounded by enablers.  There are moments when Williams is able to show the needy, fragile and troubled girl underneath the star sheen, and I’m glad the movie didn’t shy away from that.

And speaking of the star sheen, Williams’ makeup, hair and styling is impeccable - and quite a necessary element when you’re playing someone who was so stylized in her public persona. The scene that best illustrates this is when Colin and Marilyn are confronted by paparazzi during a spontaneous outing. She turns casually to Colin and asks, “Shall I be ‘her’?” and just like that, she “turns on” Marilyn Monroe - sexy swaying, playful winking and all. “Playing” Marilyn Monroe was perhaps her greatest role, but that ease of switching gears was also probably her downfall. She opens up to Colin at one point, admitting that all the men in her life see her as “Marilyn Monroe,” and once they figure out that’s not really who she is, they leave.

The film on a whole is not spectacularly original. A young man falls for a beautiful woman completely out of his grasp, learns some life lessons, comes of age. He forgoes a pretty, pert costume assistant (Emma Watson) to chase Marilyn’s affections and in the end gets his heart broken. But the audience doesn’t really care about Colin - at least not when he’s sharing the screen with the magnetic Williams. She pulls focus, much like Marilyn did in all of her films, and she’s marvelous to behold.

Bookended by two sensational song and dance numbers seamlessly performed by Williams, My Week with Marilyn reaffirms Marilyn Monroe’s timeless appeal - and solidifies that same quality in the radiant Michelle Williams.

You can also find my review on!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Wood's Death Revisited!

I first wrote about this last March and now it seems Los Angeles authorities have officially reopened their investigation into the mysterious death of Natalie Wood – almost 30 years to the day it happened. 

Boat captain Dennis Davern is pointing the finger at Wood’s husband, Robert Wagner, saying Wagner was “responsible” for his wife’s death. Davern claims he was asked by Wagner not to turn on the boat's search light or call a nearby restaurant after Wood went missing from their boat off the coast of Southern California's Catalina Island. It was already known that Wood and Wagner had been fighting that night, but police said today that Wagner is not a suspect in her death.

For now, cops have not revealed much about their investigation, but they did say they received new, credible information that was enough to warrant a second look. I've always been fascinated with this case and I'm anxious to see if they uncover anything new.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Piper Laurie Winner!

Ok, so I guess there aren't as many Piper Laurie fans as there are Steve McQueen fans out there. But we still have a winner for the Learning to Live Out Loud book contest! Much thanks to DanielBay26 for entering! Even if you didn't enter this time, check out the book - it's sure to be an interesting read. And if you haven't discovered Piper Laurie yet, go Netflix The Hustler immediately! 

Friday, November 4, 2011

CONTEST: Win a Copy of Piper Laurie's New Memoir!

Attention people who like free things! I’ve got another book contest for you! I scored a brand new copy of Piper Laurie’s memoir (released in stores earlier this week) called Learning to Live Out Loud. It chronicles her rise in Hollywood, and her transition from contract roles to more creatively fulfilling projects. Plus there are some juicy revelations – like how she hooked up with Ronald Reagan on the set of her first movie, and later had an affair with Mel Gibson! Scan. Da. Lous. You know you wanna learn more.

Laurie is a three-time Oscar nominee, for The Hustler, Carrie and Children of a Lesser God, and had a memorable role on the TV show Twin Peaks. My personal favorite Piper Laurie role is Sarah Packard, Paul Newman’s doomed lover in 1961’s The Hustler.

I want to know what YOUR favorite Piper Laurie role is and WHY. Flip through her IMDb – chances are you’ve seen her something (esp. if you're an old movie fan)!

**Put your answers in the comments below OR tweet or Facebook them to me! I’ll pick my favorite answer NOVEMBER 11th. Winner gets a copy of the book! (Only U.S. residents please. Sorry!)**

Special thanks to Crown Publishing for providing On the Marquee with this amazing book!