There appears to be a running theme here: women on the edge. The first three films I’m reviewing in this post are each about young, vulnerable, psychologically unstable women. Yet, each is strong, powerful, and intriguing. They are also played by three amazing young actresses, who dominate their respective films with startling performance. I recognize that Meryl Streep won the Oscar for Best Actress at the 2012 Academy Awards, but had any of these three won the award (had Elizabeth Olson or Kirsten Dunst even been nominated), there would have been no complaint from me.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) dir. Sean Durkin ***1/2
Elizabeth Olson shines as the multi-named title character in this slow burning thriller. She plays Martha, who has run away from a commune led by charismatic cult leader, Patrick (the chilling John Hawkes) to reunite with her estranged sister. As she tries to adjust to life with Lucy (Sarah Paulsen), her sister and Lucy’s husband, various incidents both large and small trigger memories of life on the commune. Why did she leave? What horrible things was she exposed to? What horrible things were done to her? Is the threat even gone now that she’s left? The beauty of this film is the ambiguity of Olson’s performance, forcing us to question her sanity and perception. I found myself wondering if all of this wasn’t somehow a part of a greater mental illness on her part. Yet, there’s enough realism to the details of her flashbacks that it doesn’t feel like we’ve entered Lynch-ian territory. Olsen’s is a subtle, nuanced, and challenging performance from such a young actress. She develops each version of her character as almost a different person: as Martha, her large, expressive eyes are constantly roving and looking for things lurking in the shadows, as Marcy May she has a far more relaxed posture and easy smile, and as the once seen Marlene, she is untrusting and curt. All this leads us to reflect on who she really is, what her motives are, and whether or not she is a trustworthy lens through which to view this tale. This unsettling idea keeps her from becoming a classic victim, and enhances the tension as the movie builds towards a disturbing climax. The last shot, alone, as it closes in on Olsen’s haunted, paranoid eyes, will give you chills.
Melancholia (2011) dir. Lars von Trier ***
How would you spend the apocalypse? Lars von Trier imagines a woman who spends it getting married and succumbing to the pressures of clinical depression. The opening sequence of this film is a masterful summary of the movie to come, painted in beautiful slo-mo images; then von Trier begins his story, using a steadicam as if we are privy to watching the wedding video of the “happy” couple. Of course, since this is a von Trier film no one is happy, especially Justine (Kirsten Dunst) who can’t find solace in her nuptials with Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). After the wedding, she spends a depressing week with her type-A sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire’s rich, bitter husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) who are obsessed with the presence of a planet called Melancholia that some scientists claim is on a collision course with Earth. Much of the film is stark, quiet, and as depressed as Justine. The performances, especially that of Dunst, are strong. And the opening and closing images are absolutely riveting and disquieting. But sometimes von Trier’s need to make events and objects (like art books and baths) metaphorical is overwhelming and distracting from the narrative. It’s almost as if he’s holding up signs pointing out the cleverness of his imagery, making the film seem artificial when it should instead feel engaging and real. Nonetheless, Melancholia is worth seeing, if only for the beginning and the end.
My Week with Marilyn (2011) dir. Simon Curtis ***
Marilyn Monroe is cinema’s most iconic presence. Her influence is still all over the place, not just in her physicality, but in the complexity afforded her celebrity. We can’t have an ‘it’ girl anymore without the memory of Marilyn lingering like a lovely ghost. My Week with Marilyn does an excellent job capturing the various elements of Marilyn’s personality. Michelle Williams does much more than provide a caricature; at moments she truly seems to embody Marilyn, disappearing into the buxom goddess’s soul. She manages to affirm Marilyn’s mystique as a celebrity while showcasing the devastating insecurity that eventually eroded Marilyn’s life and career. The film’s plot follows a young Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) as he strives to break into show business. He lands a job working as 3rd assistant director on Laurence Olivier’s (Kenneth Branagh) production of The Prince and the Showgirl, and ultimately lands the greatest job any young man could ever have – serving as Marilyn Monroe’s companion. Redmayne plays Clark as a puppy dog, and seems to vanish in the scenes he shares with the magnetic Williams, but he is much more compelling in his moments with Branagh’s Olivier, who finds himself questioning his own talents and skills as Marilyn’s erratic behavior comes close to tearing down his first foray into movies. The plot of the film has a fairly light conflict that doesn’t feel particularly weighty – after all, even if the production failed, neither Marilyn’s career or Olivier’s career would have been ruined – but the actors carry this burden by providing terrific performances. Even minor characters, such as Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike and Julia Ormand as Vivien Leigh, feel fleshed out and real. But this film completely belongs to Michelle Williams, who has taken an iconic figure and given us a career defining performance.
The Muppets (2011) dir. James Bobin ***
This movie is obviously a labor of love for Jason Segel and Nick Stoller, who showed us an enormous amount of Muppet love on their comedy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The Muppets is a light, fun, goofy good time, and it serves as a love letter to all the Muppets fans out there who have sorely missed them since their inferior last outing, Muppets From Space in 1999. In this reboot, Segel plays Gary, who is a doting boyfriend, brother, and Muppet fan. His brother, Walter, a puppet himself, is an even bigger Muppet fan. Together with Gary’s girl, Mary (Amy Adams), they head for Hollywood to check out Muppet Studios only to discover it’s a rundown relic of days gone by, about to be sold to an oil tycoon named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) who wants nothing more than to destroy the memory of the Muppets and drink the oil milkshake residing under the studio. The three decide to seek out Kermit the Frog in an attempt to bring the Muppets back together again to save the studios by putting a telethon on TV to raise money. Of course the gang reunites and the joy of this movie is how this is done and how easy it is to fall under the magic spell of the Muppets. The film features some fun cameos (my favorite being Dave Grohl of the rock band, Foo Fighters, playing a human version of Animal, named Animool), great gags (“Maniacal laugh! Maniacal laugh!”), and some terrific musical numbers (“Man or Muppet?” won the Oscar for Best Original Song, but my vote would have gone to the barbershop quartet version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). If you like the Muppets, this movie will remind you why you loved them.