June 19, 2013
Written by Mark Schumann, Father of Three
Thursday, 16 February 2012 16:02
As the countdown to the Academy Awards continues, the Reel Dad looks at two nominated films you may have missed — War Horse and My Week With Marilyn.
War Horse: Daring return to 1960s movie making
In the epic movies of my childhood, the sky was brilliant and clear, the land was vast and rolling, and the people were filled with hope. These films of the early 1960s may not have realistically addressed social issues but they clearly expressed an optimism that appealed to many an audience. And they created a language of film that defined their moment in time.
Steven Spielberg makes a daring return to the movies of the mid-20th Century with War Horse, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo. Instead of shooting the story with the sensibilities of today, or in the conventions of its World War I setting, Spielberg pursues a personal vision of the ultimate mid-century movie epic. With every visual detail that only a master director can command, Spielberg returns us to a marvelous time in Hollywood when the epic was king and wholesome entertainment was the industry’s highest priority.
The sweeping story begins quietly, as a struggling family in Great Britain risks losing everything when the challenged father spends too much money on a horse they cannot afford. To keep their farm, the family needs a plow horse; but Joey, as the horse is named, is too special and beautiful for such chores. Or so we think. Within minutes he makes us believe he can do anything.
These opening sequences, as beautiful as any Spielberg has created, set a tone that the film consistently nurtures throughout its breezy 2.5 hours. While the characters are broadly played, without a great deal of depth, they conform to the conventions of mid-century movies where actors created images rather than examined personality. Spielberg relies more on what the performers express with their eyes than the dialogue they speak. He knows, in these epics, words are less important to create magic than visuals.
Powerful images continue as the British Army purchases the horse to serve in the War during which, through a series of miraculous events, Joey becomes a symbol for perseverance in the face of tragedy. In that Spielberg way, the director takes an outrageous event, stages it with exaggeration and reaches directly for the viewer’s heart. This characteristic approach — that can backfire as in his disappointing Amistad — works perfectly here because, from the start, the director sets the rules the film must meet. Spielberg makes War Horse a mid-century epic that consistently delivers the world he creates. (146 minutes, PG-13)
My Week With Marilyn: Williams tries to recreate Monroe
For any of us who love movies, the magic of Marilyn Monroe reaches beyond the number of films she actually made. Even with a limited filmography, she is an unforgettable icon who clearly knew how much the camera loved her.
Unfortunately, the recreation of one chapter in Monroe’s life, My Week With Marilyn, is more a tease than a movie, a slight and synthetic view of her struggles to film The Prince and the Showgirl in the 1950s. Except for a valiant portrayal by Michelle Williams, this forgettable not-quite biography relegates Monroe to a supporting role in an author’s conceit.
Based on the memoirs of Colin Clark, My Week chronicles how he worked his way onto the set as a production assistant. If we are to believe Clark, he encounters a Monroe so intimidated by co-star and director Laurence Olivier, upset with husband Arthur Miller, and emotionally dependent on acting coach Paula Strasberg, that she is unable to work until Clark makes her feel better. Their brief relationship, lushly filmed, proves to be just what Monroe needs to finish the movie.
Whether or not any of this occurred is irrelevant; hopefully what did happen in real life was more interesting than what we see on screen. My Week With Marilyn gives us no idea why Marilyn is a mess on the set, why she frustrates Olivier or how Clark’s attention helped her get through the shoot. And, because we never know what’s behind what we see, we can’t appreciate why it happened. Worse, the movie fails to capture the magic that Monroe could create on screen.
Williams, in a daring performance, deserving of an Oscar nomination, tries to reach beyond the script to bring Monroe to life. But there is a limit to what any actress can do when the material isn’t there. Because of the slight script, as engaging as Williams can be, she does not move us. We never care for this Marilyn. While Williams may suggest Monroe’s natural allure, she fails to electrify. No matter how hard she works, she simply can’t recreate what Monroe, as a woman and actress, made look so easy.
Someday, someone may make a real film about Marilyn Monroe. Until then, check out one of her classic performances that will live forever. I’d start with Some Like it Hot. (2011, 99 minutes, R)
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