Friday, November 25, 2011

In Theaters: 'The Artist,' 'My Week With Marilyn'

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) burn up the dance floor in "The Artist." Photos courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

‘TIS the time of year when movie studios release some of their best films in hopes of garnering nominations from the various award-giving groups, particularly the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the outfit that issues a little statuette called Oscar.

Two films that will likely make many of the nomination lists are “The Artist” and “My Week With Marilyn.” Both are brought to the world by The Weinstein Company.

Opening today in select theaters in the United States, mainly in New York and California, is “The Artist.” The silent b&w film, a sensation at Cannes and just about everywhere else it has screened on the film festival circuit, is an homage to the silent films and talkies of the Old Hollywood era – from the '20s to the '50s.

The artist of the title is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) whose place as the biggest star in the film universe goes unchallenged until the introduction of talkies. On the scene just in time to become a star of these new-fangled talking pictures is the talented and effervescent Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a devoted fan of George and heretofore a mere extra on the set of silent films. There’s a dog (Uggy), too, which is every bit as adorable as Asta (“The Thin Man” films.)

Director Michel Hazanavicius freely admits that “The Artist,” filmed in Los Angeles, borrowed liberally from old Hollywood, even relying on a good deal of behind-the-scenes talent from that era. “I was like a crook,” he said during a press conference at New York Film Festival (NYFF) where the film made its U.S. debut.

The actors, too, studied films and stars of yesteryear. JD, a Frenchman who looks every inch and stitch the Hollywood leading men of that fabled era, watched everything from episodes of “Lassie” to Douglas Fairbanks films. As for BB, she took part of her inspiration from Joan Crawford. “She did a lot of dancing in her early career,” said the Paris-based Argentine actress. “Joan was adorable and Peppy had to be adorable, so men and women would like her.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) suffers a career setback when talkies come to town in "The Artist."

Other references for the character of Peppy, BB disclosed, are Marlene Dietrich (“She winked a lot.”) and Gloria Swanson (“She did silent films, talkies and TV.”) “Then [director] Michel said forget Joan, Gloria and Marlene and just focus on being you.”

And so it is. The film is indeed a wonderful, glorious throwback to the Hollywood of old. BB and JD are an engaging pair, never missing a step. Speaking of step, that dance number at the end is spectacular.

A number of those that sleep, eat and breathe film have declared “The Artist” the best film of the year.

“My Week With Marilyn,” which opened the day before Thanksgiving, chronicles the seven days that Oxford chap and film career-minded Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) spends with Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) while her husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) is away. The superstar actress has famously journeyed to England to film “The Prince and the Showgirl” with Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh).

In a film boasting many strong performances, it is MW who stands apart. Her Marilyn is utterly luminous; the actress effortlessly conveys Marilyn’s vulnerabilities and strengths. On close inspection, that twinkle in the eyes of MW’s Marilyn reveals a steely determination that informs the viewer that Marilyn Monroe is playing Marilyn Monroe, that what is visible to the naked eye is a veneer. “The first thing I stumbled upon,” MW divulged about her research into Marilyn after a press screening of the film at the NYFF, “ is that Marilyn Monroe was a character she played. It was so well-honed … the artifice.”

What is underneath (Norma Jean), however, Marilyn doesn’t reveal for survival’s sake, surrounded as she is by a retinue of servers, fetchers, carriers and enablers. In other words, leeches and sycophants.

Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) and Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper) on the set of "The Prince and the Showgirl" in "My Week With Marilyn."

The only person Marilyn allows a window into her self and soul is Colin. Sir Laurence’s assistant treats the actress as Marilyn longs to be treated – “like a normal girl” instead of a sex symbol/object. Colin, played with starry-eyed innocence and goodwill by ER, is the only person around Marilyn who wants nothing from her. On the contrary, he wants – and does– give her something.

Of course, skeptics should keep in mind that “My Week With Marilyn” (published some time after CC’s “The Prince, the Showgirl and Me”) is based solely on CC’s account of his time with the famous American actress. What a week!

“The Artist” is rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture; “My Week With Marilyn is rated R for language.

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