Sunday, May 20, 2012

Movie Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Director: Sean Durkin

Reviewed: 20 May 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** 1/2 (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

The word cult is never uttered in Sean Durkin's brilliant film Martha Marcy May Marlene.  However, the film is very much centered around the world of the eponymous lead character (Elizabeth Olsen) and her impressions of joining a cult in upstate New York led by the charismatic and quietly menacing Patrick (John Hawkes) as well as her experience trying to cleanse or deprogram after fleeing the cult.  Durkin never takes us down a familiar road or a cliche; instead, his film's construction unsettles our expectations in its before and after focus.  Eventually, Durkin's form breaks down completely between alternating from Martha's induction and initiation into the cult and her attempts to reconnect with her bourgeoise sister Lucy (Sarah Paulsen) in a lake house where she is staying with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).  I turned to my wife an hour into the movie and asked what time period this sequence of shots was taking place-before the cult or after the cult.  The brilliance of Durkin's direction and editing is that by the end of the film, we really cannot tell where we are and when we are, but that deliberate confusion is part and parcel of what Durkin is driving at: depicting one woman's mental deterioration at the hands of a cult and her family.

To say that a movie is scary when you're a 33 year old adult is a tricky thing.  I am still afraid of sharks because of Jaws, possession because of The Exorcist, serial killers with night goggles because of The Silence of the Lambs, and aliens because of Aliens.  On the surface, this film does not seem to be a scary one.  However, I was really unsettled by the mundane depiction of cult life, low level crime, destruction of cultural and familial norms (the men all eat first at the cult; the women only eat when the men are done; the bedrooms, clothing, and women are all shared), as well as the explosion of violence at unexpected moments.  I was scared watching this movie, filled with dread and a sense of impending doom that Durkin fully captures in a riveting final shot sequence with headlights peeking over the edge of the car window, tracking Martha.  It scares me in its reality and its resemblance to the world that we do inhabit.  John Hawkes delivers a nomination-worthy performance as Patrick, playing the guitar, smiling as he renames and brands the women who are initiated into the cult, using his quiet malevolence to disarm everyone around him.  As for Olsen, she is a revelation in this film, with her expressive face and eyes showing the fear, sadness, and longing within Martha.  She is an actress to watch.

However, Sean Durkin's direction and confident construction of this film is what sticks with me over the performances and the script.  An online reviewer named Don Fishies on compared this film to Memento which I think is interesting but not exactly right.  Where Memento unspools backwards and builds upon itself continually in a fugue state, Martha Marcy May Marlene swirls vertiginously, with sounds blending from one time period to another, its associations being as simple as a swirling spoon in a glass, the fragmentation of Martha's consciousness playing out in a party scene when past and present intersect into a garish nightmare.  Sounds of pine cones on the roof could be something more.  A phone ringing is worse than anyone screaming.  A nightmare turns into reality and turns into a violent confrontation.  Ultimately, I think Durkin is reaching for profundity, offering up Lucy and Ted's life as a cult of sorts similar in some ways juxtaposed with the world of Patrick and his control and dominance, showing how people control others, how ritual rules our lives, and how private and public spheres intersect at the dinner table, in the bedroom, in chores.  A subtext of Lucy abandoning Martha by going off to college is lightly touched upon, offering a possible reason why Martha could have been attracted to a cult.  By abandoning her sister to the influence of an aunt, did Lucy steer Martha towards the influence of someone like Patrick?  In the absence of family to protect her, how much can Martha be blamed?

How much are we responsible for influencing each other?  How much are families really cults? Is everything a cult?  Durkin masterfully raises troubling questions without answers.  And, can I call Martha Marcy May Marlene a cult film about cults?  I wish more people would see this powerful film.  It will stick with you.

Works Cited:

Fishies, Don.  "Should be retitled: A Star is Born."  24 September 2011.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Movie Review: Vertigo

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Reviewed: 19 May 2012

jamesintexas rating--**** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Vertigo represents the pinnacle of cinema for me, the exciting astonishment of everything that film can offer.  Personally, to prepare for this essay, I reviewed my impressions from March of 1996 when I first studied the film in Dave Wetta's Composition, Literature, & Film class at York High School.  As a seventeen year old, I loved Bernard Hermann's hypnotic, operatic score, queried Kim Novak's uneven (to me) performance, questioned some of the plot threads (How did Madeleine disappear from the McKittreck Hotel early in the film?), and fell for the final shot, a despairing Jimmy Stewart as Scottie, hands open at his side, about to enter the abyss.  My favorite film critic, Roger Ebert, states, "The real woman has fallen in love with him. In tricking him, she tricked herself. And the man, by preferring his dream to the woman standing before him, has lost both" (Ebert 1).  Self-deception, dreams versus reality, and self-destruction are central to unlocking this film.  And, I am humble enough to state, I am going to continue to wrestle with this film and its greatness for many, many more years.  I may never fully unlock this film.

Now in 2012, as I rewatched Vertigo twice this week in teaching it to my own AP Literature students who are approximately the same age that I was when Mr. Wetta showed it to me, I became overcome with emotion as I watched the film, tearing up at the shocking last two minutes because of the fierce urgency in Stewart's voice, the shift in the central relationship that occurs at the top of the bell tower, as well as the shocking denouement and chilling final shot.  Watching students watch this ending for the first time, mouths agape, stunned by Hitchcock's swift, sure hand, I realized that Hitchcock's work as a director stands the test of time.  Students were whispering to each other, trying to explain who was who, what happened, what the final image means.

Vertigo, a 1958 film where flowers cost fifty cents and over-the-top kisses can seem laughable to a more modern audience, was constructed by Alfred Hitchcock in such a meticulous way to play on the audience's anticipation of a supposed ghost story with the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, the slow chase through the spiraling streets of gorgeous San Francisco as Scottie circles and circles lower and lower into his own obsession, the thrill of revelation (midway through the film!) followed by a slow-burn confrontation, the horror of realizing what Scottie's final drive to the tower with Madeleine/Judy means, as well as the darkness of exploitative relationships.  "It can't matter to you," Scottie tells Judy as he remakes her in Madeleine's image, according to his needs; "If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?" Judy implores Scottie, offering a nakedly raw and utterly human craving for approval and love that is heart-breaking.

For me, the central moment in the film occurs before Madeleine runs to the tower for the first time, midway through the film.  Madeline knows that she must complete her role in suavely sinister Gavin Elster's elaborate plot, yet she struggles visibly, physically, and in the registers of Novak's voice control, to free herself of Scottie's love.  "Let me go!" she repeats, squirming out of Scottie's arm in a voice that clearly is her own, Judy's, betraying her double-personality, words dripping with double meanings.  She loves Scottie, stating "It wasn't supposed to be like this!"  She sounds like Judy for the first time in the film; she is not Madeleine.  Novak's subtle work (which I misread as uneven as a high school senior) here and throughout the entire film is masterful; her striking image is the dominant one of the film, and we, through our surrogate of Scottie, are happy to follow her, to wander with her and after her, to pursue her in slow motion, touching upon her vertiginous spiral of a hairstyle, her hand clutching her heart, her "phony trances," and her eyes which show both terror and longing.  Hitchcock's steady, confident hand allows us to understand Judy's vertigo (or simply disorientation) as well as Scottie's.  In my phone call this week with my film teacher, Mr. Wetta and I both agreed on the power of Novak in this film.

Czech writer Milan Kundera describes vertigo in his acclaimed novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being as such: "Vertigo is something other than the fear of falling.  It is the voice of emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves" (Kundera 60).  The first line in the film is a plea offered by a policeman who tries and fails to pull Scottie from the abyss: "Give me your hand.  Give me your hand."  This line is offered before the policeman topples off of the roof (stylistically linked to the bell tower at the end), powerless to pull himself up or maintain a grip.  No hand offered by anyone can save Scottie Ferguson from joining his beloved Madeleine's leap into the darkness, into the abyss; nothing can defend him from the desire to fall.  Nothing and no one is left to defend him against this impulse.  His suicidal leap is preordained in his garish nightmare.

He falls.  And we fall with him.  Thanks, Hitch.  Thanks, Mr. Wetta.  Thanks, AP Lit students.

Works Cited

Ebert, Roger.  "Movie Review: Vertigo."  Web: Chicago Sun-Times, 13 October 1996.  

Kundera, Milan.  The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  New York: Harper & Row, 1984.  Print.

Vertigo.  Dir. Alfred Hitchcock.  Universal, 1958.  DVD.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Movie Review: My Life With Marilyn

Director: Simon Curtis

Reviewed: 11 May 2012

jamesintexas rating--** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

The appeal of My Life With Marilyn is in Michelle Williams' bravura performance as the eponymous bombshell; she moves with confidence and style, opening and closing the film with a dance and song number.  In full disclosure, my only film experience with Monroe is Wilder's Some Like It Hot, and beyond that, I know Marilyn from caricature, the television show Smash, and a little bit around the edges of 20th Century Literature (I think Joyce Carol Oates has a novel about MM).  However compelling Marilyn Monroe is as a subject and a representation (like Princess Diana) of fame and its effect on a person's self-perception and insecurity as well as its voraciousness, I ultimately think this film is a disappointing trifle with very little that is interesting to say about one of the most interesting public figures of the past century.  The word that kept popping into my mind as I watched the film on a United flight from Houston to Newark was television.  My Week With Marilyn felt like a television movie, and I mean that as a pejorative.

Simon Curtis cuts this movie in a very quick, almost glib fashion, and the story in and of itself is not that compelling.  Colin Clark, a young man (Eddie Redmayne) comes of age post-college and finds himself the Assistant to the Assistant Director on Sir Laurence Olivier's film set of The Prince and The Show Girl in 1957 at Pinewood Studios where Olivier is the respected thespian while Marilyn Monroe is the star.  Much is made of the clash of the titans between Olivier (a hammy Kenneth Branagh) and Monroe, and her insecurity as an actress as juxtaposed against his arrogance and own more hidden insecurity.  Most of this film is spent focusing on Branagh gnashing his teeth at Monroe's inability to show up at the set on time, as well as film veteran Dame Sybil (the great Judi Dench, underused) wandering on set to offer aphorisms.  There exists some tension between Marilyn's adherence to The Method style of acting which offends Olivier who is seen as a master of rehearsal and memorization.  Although there is a certain appeal to seeing how Olivier ran a set (I have very little background knowledge on Olivier, so again, I may not be the target audience for this film), the film grates and grinds to a halt with Redmayne's performance as the lovestruck Colin which consists of staring longingly at a flirty, disastrous Marilyn who ends up absconding with him for the titular week.  Hermione Granger pops up in a thankless role as a potential lover who exists to stare longingly at Colin as he stares at Marilyn.  There's quite a bit of staring in this film.

To return to Michelle Williams, she offers up a very strong performance, and her reading of lines like, "Shall I be her?" before launching into a cooing performance as the sex kitten Marilyn offers shades that are quite appealing; her Marilyn is a victim of her own unloved childhood, a string of marriages that left her unfulfilled, as well as a certain narcissistic compulsion to seek out men to transitorily captivate with her attentions.  I'm not sure if she should have won the Oscar because I haven't yet seen The Iron Lady, but Michelle Williams is clearly one of the most exciting actresses of my generation, and I'm always drawn to her brave, fearless performances.  This film, though, is not excellent despite her finest efforts.