The Chicago Film Festival opened, for me, in a private screening room at 70 East Lake in a seat that, I was told, “is usually Roger Ebert’s seat.” (I promised to move if Roger showed up; he did not).
First film of the day was “My Week with Marilyn,” which will be the Festival Centerpiece presentation at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 12, 2011, with Director Simon Curtis and scriptwriter Adrian Hodges scheduled to attend.
“My Week with Marilyn” is based on a book by Simon Curtis entitled “The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me,” recounting a week Curtis spent in the company of Monroe while she was filming “The Prince and the Showgirl” with co-star and director Laurence Olivier. Eddie Redmayne plays the young Colin, the third assistant director and all-around gopher whom Marilyn comes to trust and like. It is a bad time in her life, as her then-husband Arthur Miller has begun writing “The Crucible” and Marilyn finds a rough draft of this roughly auto biographical (and uncomplimentary to Marilyn) work.
Miller is quoted in the film saying, “I can’t help her smash all her insecurities. I can’t work. I can’t think. She’s devouring me.” Miller soon leaves and goes back to the United States to be with his children. That leaves Marilyn on her own, and it is well-known that Marilyn needs the support of encouraging others in order to function well.
As it is, early on a stagehand tells Colin, “They like to keep her doped up. It makes her easier to control. They’re terrified their cash cow will slip away.”
The chief conflict in the film is between Marilyn and Olivier, with Kenneth Branagh as Olivier completely exasperated with Marilyn’s many delays of the film, true to what actually occurred on the set, but also in awe of her natural talent. Star Michelle Williams, although a more slender and less buxom version of Marilyn, has the breathy, childish demeanor down and wears the translucent porcelain skin and the peroxide blonde hair well. Another critic asked me if I thought Williams would be Oscar-nominated for her role. (Williams was nominated last year, for “Blue Valentine”). I responded that I can’t believe there won’t be stronger vehicles (like last year’s “Rabbit Hole” or “Black Swan”) for actresses. This film seems lightweight when compared to either of those performances from last year; while enjoyable, for me the Williams part didn’t scream “Oscar,” as Brad Pitt’s recent turns do. However, it is undeniable that Michelle Williams was excellent in the role, and the possibility of another nomination depends on the rest of the field that develops between now and Oscar time.
Portrayed as an insecure, needy woman who fears going crazy as her mother did, Marilyn notes that everyone seems to leave her. “All people ever see is Marilyn Monroe. As soon as they realize I’m not her, they run.” A markedly older Julia Ormond (“First Knight”) plays Vivian Leigh, Olivier’s wife, who was none too gallantly told by her husband (Kenneth Brannagh as Olivier) she was too old to play the part of the showgirl that she originated. Also in the cast is Emma Watson, a girl who is the fresh-faced girl Colin’s own age but gets short shrift while Marilyn is in town and refuses to go out with him after Marilyn goes home.
The second film of the day was a George Clooney vehicle in which he plays a descendant of the Hawaiian Royal Family who, along with his family, owns a great deal of island land in trust. A workaholic who has neglected his wife and children while working as an attorney, Cousin Matt King (George Clooney) is also the trustee of the estate and working on a deal to sell the last few acres of undeveloped land on behalf of all the heirs.
Clooney’s wife Elizabeth Dorsey King has a boating accident and sustains a head injury. After she is hospitalized, Clooney learns from his oldest daughter, 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) that his wife had been having an affair with a real estate mogul (Matthew Lillard) who stands to profit from the sale of the King land, if the deal falls a certain way. Much of the plot also centers on youngest daughter Scottie, age 7 (Amara Miller) and how her mother’s passing and her wild child older sister affect her
Appearing as Elizabeth’s father is veteran character actor Robert Forster, and another familiar face is that of Beau Bridges, who plays Cousin Hugh. Michael Ontkean, who hasn’t been seen much in film since co-starring with Paul Newman in “Slapshot,” is Cousin Six.
Clooney wants to confront his wife’s lover, and he is also is trying to come to grips with the reality that he now much be much more of a father figure than he ever was before. Shots of the brain-dead wife’s slow slide toward the grave, complete with spreading her ashes in the ocean after her death, make this film not among the happiest film-going experience. In addition, it is poorly paced and the voice-over, [a technique not used that often by modern directors (Alexander Payne both directed and helped write the screenplay)], falls flat. It doesn’t help that Clooney mispronounces the word “drowned” as “drownded” in the film’s opening sequence.
There are two extremely good scenes: the scene in a swimming pool when Clooney tells his oldest daughter that they are going to have to pull the plug on Mom’s life support, and Clooney’s moving good-bye to his wife before they do so. A real tear slides from Clooney’s eye and he says, “Good bye, Elizabeth, my wife, my love, my pain.” All-in-all, I was feeling logey and in need of a nap as the film wound down and then came Film Number Three, during which I struggled mightily to stay awake.
The last film of the afternoon, Pina, was a 103-minute tribute by Director Wim Wenders (“Paris, Texas”) to dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. The film was in 3D, but there was nothing in the film that screamed for a 3D treatment. I was instantly reminded of the recent Peter Gabriel touring show, which was shown in select theaters in 3D, or the opera presentations that can be viewed in theaters in some cities. Wenders had one project fall through (a staging of Wagner’s Ring Trilogy) when the sponsors balked at using 3D due to its cost and intrusiveness, but it seems safe to say that Wenders is sold on using it.
He was also sold on Pina Bausch, who is eulogized by a number of her dancers onscreen. Pina’s method with her dancers was known to be collaborative. She would delve into their backgrounds and their fears and memories and ask them to create dances that expressed their emotions saying that dance took over where words failed. One dancer was told, “You just have to get crazier.” Another says, “You always felt more than just human working with Pena.” A third said she was told to “Go on searching,” but had no idea what she was supposed to be searching for, or whether she was on the right track. (This sounds like a writing job I once held that almost drove me mad.) One dancer says, “Tanztheater: without Pina, I just don’t know what it is,” and another says, “Pina told me ‘Dance for love.'”
Every single dancer down to the last man or woman who speaks about Pina on film was apparently universally enchanted with the choreographer. One, in particular, says, “It was good being an older dancer with Pina.” (Pina featured many older dancers in her pieces.) Another says, “Pina was a radical explorer.” The subtitle of the film is “dance, dance, otherwise we are lost.” The cynic in me couldn’t help but wonder about this universal praise. If Pina had not died so suddenly and unexpectedly at 68, would the troupe so unanimously praise their leader? Were there no instances of politics being played, (as there is in every workplace and college campus in America)?
I knew nothing of Pina prior to seeing this film, but it was apparent to me, from strolling about Cheekwood in Nashville over Labor Day weekend in 2010 where glass artist Dale Chihuly positioned his glass sculptures outside that mansion, surrounded by nature , that the merging of art and nature has much to recommend it. Pina was known for this, and the film reflects dances that take place outside, in forests, in cities (once with a German McDonald’s ad clearly visible in the background) and in other unorthodox settings with unorthodox props.
Some of Pina’s pieces are fairly easy to interpret, as when a woman is kept on a leash and constantly races back and forth, banging into walls, or when tables and chairs are obstacles that a male figure attempts to keep a female figure from crashing in to. A woman wearing a red dress carries a potted tree about with her, representative of fertility.
Then there are those that critics might describe as whimsical: 2 male dancers come onstage, lie down, and spit water at one another. A male dancer repeatedly drops his sweatpants trousers and stands in front of 4 to 5 seated women, crotch-high, in his briefs. Odd.
One of the most theatrical things in this film was the fact that, 2 weeks after Pina danced in Germany, she was diagnosed with (an unnamed form of) cancer and died 5 days later. This sudden death of the 68-year-old artist deeply affected her troupe and Wim Wenders, and this piece, begun in 2009, is a tribute to her legacy.