Tag Archives: bio-pic

Blonde

24 Sep

Ana de Armas is all-in as Marilyn

By Tom Meek Thursday, September 22, 2022

Andrew Dominik’s new spin on the legacy of Marilyn Monroe is a lurid layer cake of sex and spectacle, with occasional intimate segues into a vulnerable soul screaming for love and a safe space. “Blonde” is also a downright riveting flick from frame one until the credits roll; just how much of it is true is another issue. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ mega-paged tome, which is admittedly fictionalized, there’s threesomes, sexual assault, on-set meltdowns, daddy issues, delusions, emotional juicing and more – enough to earn the film an NC-17 rating. If you take anything from the film, it’s that Monroe, for all her accomplishments and fame, led a pretty shitty life from start to finish, thanks mostly to men who wanted to control her, own her and consume her.

There are a few reasons for the film’s engrossing success, even though it feels so opportunistic and exploitative that you want it to fail. First are the stylistic choices by Dominik, such as cutting in and out of black and white, impressive recreation of screens from Monroe classics such as “Some Like it Hot” and “Niagara,” and the hard Marilyn POV that pays off – kind of – when she’s with JFK and pumped up on sedatives by a doctor ever slinking around the edges of the set. There’s also an emotive score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and, of course and most of all, Ana de Armas, who conjures Monroe effortlessly: her breathy, hazy intones and the toggle between perfect shiny object before the camera and hot troubled mess otherwise. 

The young Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) as painted has daddy issues – namely that she doesn’t have one, and it becomes an affliction that eats at her over time. Later in life Marilyn refers to her husbands in wispy coos as “daddy.” It’s heavy-handed but fits right in, as men and possible father figures loom large, for the most part with unpleasant results. An early first interview at a studio with a Mr. Z (Zanuck?) comes with requisite (bent-over-the) desk sex, whether wanted or not. Then there’s the hubbies, Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), protective and sensitive until he gets fed up with Marilyn’s sex-bomb image and becomes abusive and worse, and playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), in touch with Marilyn’s inner demons but inert when it comes to helping. The real kicker is JFK (Caspar Phillipson), lounging on a bed in hotel room, shirtless but in his infamous back brace, on the phone conducting presidential business. When Marilyn enters, passed on by an agent keeping watch at the suite’s open door, he gives her a series of gestures imploring oral service – the door remains open and Dominik (“Killing Them Softly,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ”) invites us to join in, dropping the camera right into the middle of the act. There’s no full frontal, but the experience is overwhelmingly visceral. Given all that came before, it’s just another indignity in the life of Ms. Monroe. The time Marilyn does find true comfort in the men’s arms, it’s an ongoing, imagined three-way romance with Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), racily rendered but also one of the movie’s more piquant and liberating tear-aways.

This isn’t the first time the inner turmoil of Marilyn has deconstructed and rewritten the script for Hollywood’s most iconic starlet. Back in 2011 Michelle Williams played Monroe at odds with Laurence Olivier on the set of “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957) in Simon Curtis’ “My Week with Marilyn.” Much here is asked of Armas, who is topless almost as much as she’s not. As Ryan Gosling’s virtual love interest Joi in “Blade Runner 2049” (2017), she demonstrated the sensuality gene that was such an ingrained part of Monroe’s public persona. She notched comedic flair in “Knives Out” (2019), lively action chops in the recent Bond blast “No Time to Die” (2021) and, maybe more to the end of the Monroe role, played an emotionally and sexually complex wife in Adrien Lyne’s twisted erotic thriller “Deep Water” this year. 

Like Oates’ book, “Blonde” is long, nearly three hours, but it ticks by in a sprightly way due mostly to the manic nature of Monroe’s depicted private life, brought to crescendos and crashes by Armas’ all-in effort. The cinematography by Chayse Irvin (“BlacKkKlansman”) is another staunch asset, as is Julianne Nicholson’s turn as Marilyn’s unstable single mother. It’s an undeniably well crafted film that rescripts history and delivers revelation under the guise of verisimilitude. The question is, does it really do its subject justice?

Judy

27 Sep

‘Judy’: She knows there’s no place like home, but can’t get any closer than stage in London

 

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“Judy,” the biopic about stage icon Judy Garland, is just right focusing on her “hot mess” last chapter as an in-residence performer at a London theater club, her better days interspersed through deft editing and seamless narrative framing. It is a tad oversentimental at times, but overall a bittersweet pill that finds its mark effectively, and three-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner Renée Zellweger knocks it out of the park as the it girl whose star has faded; she’s about as sure a bet to be in Oscar talks as Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.

The script, written with purpose and verve by Tom Edge (“The Crown”), sets us up with Judy and her two youngest, Lorna and Joey (played by Bella Ramsey from “Game of Thrones” and Lewin Lloyd) circa 1969, being evicted from their hotel digs. She’s broke and broken and just wants to be a mother to her children, but there are bills to be paid, no one in the states who will give the unreliable pill-popper a role or a gig and a custody battle brewing with ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). Before London calls there’s a brief L.A. house party with older daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux – stunning) and an uplifting but ultimately unfortunate encounter with a mod hipster Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who would become her last husband.

The whole saga is sad, with fleeting moments of uplift: Judy is always “on” when on stage or talking to an adoring public, but her own worst enemy sodden with booze and pills after the curtain drops. In flashbacks to her younger days (Darci Shaw crushes it as the young Judy), she’s simultaneously given an avuncular embrace and manipulated malevolently by MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) on the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” where studio handlers forbid her food and feed her uppers and downers instead; and men in general attach themselves and milk her throughout her life. About the most love and respect the star gets beyond her progeny comes from her stiff-upper-lip handler in London, Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley) and her young bandleader, Burt (Royce Pierreson). One of the film’s more whimsical and fun moments comes when Mickey comments in a bar about a new, experimental Beatles album – and floats the idea of Judy performing with The Rolling Stones. The crowd is nonplussed, but Judy drinks up hungrily the shot of possibility and confidence.

Director Rupert Goold, who’s mostly orchestrated stage theater, and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland stage and frame the performances stunningly, especially in the use of light and closeups, and with engrossing intimacy. Of course, it all hangs on the star who’s on in every take. One telling scene comes during a TV interview, when a journalist tries to dig in on the former starlet about her “unreliability” and messy custody proceedings and gets blowback: “I’m Judy Garland for one hour on stage and then I’m a member of family just like anybody else.” Sadly, that never really became the case, and you can feel that palpably in Zellweger’s performance. 

Fictional films such as “A Star is Born” (Garland starred in the 1954 version with James Mason) and “All that Jazz” tackle the toll of stardom and its perils, but “Judy” lives it, and through it, you live it too. It breaks your heart, not from the usual distance, but deep down inside with the painful desire of someone who just wants to be loved unconditionally.

Snowden

18 Sep

‘Snowden’: Political Oliver Stone returns with whistle-blower’s uncloaking of spies

Oliver Stone’s become something of a softie, wrapping “World Trade Center” (2006), his 9/11 tale of heroism, in red, white and blue sentimentality, and making “W” (2008) a strange, off-the-mark lob with the surreal puffiness of “Being There” without the biting social undertones. His most recent effort, “Savages” (2012) showed signs of the lean, mean Stone who tapped out “U Turn” and “Natural Born Killers,” but it buckled under to contrivance and a weak storyline. So for the Stoned faithful, there’s good news: “Snowden” marks something of a comeback, a return to the realm of political and historical dramatization that powered “JFK” (1991) and “Nixon” (1995), in which controversial subjects provide a foundation for the filmmaker’s strong political leanings to seep in. It’s also a bit schmaltzy at turns, but so was Clint Eastwood’s “Sully,” which was a rock-solid piece of filmmaking. (If there’s one thing I learned this summer, it’s to let the old cutting-edge guys engage their inner sentimentality; they’ve earned it, and they inject it into films without torpedoing them.)

091516i-snowdenIt’s been only a few years since the disclosures by former intelligence worker Edward Snowden and subsequent firestorm ripped opened a debate on privacy and security. During it all, documentarian Laura Poitras captured the real-life Snowden holed up in a Hong Kong hotel as he readied exposure of the CIA and NSA for spying on U.S. citizens without cause, hacking and mining private Facebook posts – even accessing computer cameras to look in on citizens of interest, should they care. Her film, “Citizenfour,” went on to win an Academy Award. Poitras makes her way into Stone’s “Snowden” as a character, played by the ever-graceful Melissa Leo, sitting in a room shooting Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and “Guardian” journalist Glenn Greenwald (Spock player Zachary Quinto). Stone wisely doesn’t retrace much of Poitras’ steps, but makes the story about Snowden the man, his roots in the military, his nerdy proclivities, his cut-above skill set and capabilities and his on-again, off-again relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (a vivacious Shailene Woodley) – for the two, it’s love at first IP trace. Continue reading

Cesar Chavez

28 Mar

‘Cesar Chavez’: This biopic doesn’t quite do justice to a paragon of social justice

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Longtime actor Diego Luna (“Elysium” and “Y Tu Mamá También”) steps behind the lens for this biopic about the titular labor legend of the ’60s and ’70s who helped organize Californian farm workers being exploited by their employers, working long hours and living in poverty and fear of retaliation for resistance.

032814i Cesar ChavezNo, it’s not the first time Luna has been in the director seat, but it somewhat feels so. Biopics in general are stilted; there is little element of surprise. That’s not to say they can’t be lit up with the right director or actor – take “Norma Rae” or “Erin Brockovich,” but those films were directed by master filmmakers (Martin Ritt and Stephen Soderbergh) and actresses who took home Oscars (Sally Field and Julia Roberts), but the key to such a film is conflict and how the hero or heroine navigates adversity and perseveres.  Continue reading

The Fifth Estate

19 Oct

‘The Fifth Estate’: WikiLeaks film redacts likability, any understanding of Assange

By Tom Meek
October 18, 2013

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WikiLeaks, a renegade news outlet, takes hacked secrets from government agencies and publishes them to the world sans redaction, protecting the identity of the whistleblower through an elaborate “submission platform” that’s so secure even the publisher doesn’t know the identity of the leaker. The site’s notoriety reached its apex when it published reports exposing U.S. intelligence assets abroad and snippy interoffice memos from State Department officials trashing world leaders. But that’s just the background and part of the denouement of “The Fifth Estate,” which is really more a character study of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his rise to international infamy.

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Assange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch (Khan in the last “Star Trek” chapter) who in long white locks and with piercing blue eyes looks somewhat ethereal or otherworldly, like the fair-haired elves in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy or the calmly maniacal Julian Sands in the “Warlock” films. Cumberbatch’s Assange is a hard beast to wrap your hands around. He’s gruff, arrogant, but at the same time an idealist who spends time in Africa trying to expose corrupt governments stealing money from the people and killing anyone who questions their brutish entitlements. The film’s window of insight into Assange’s mystifying persona is his early collaborator Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl, who played Niki Lauda in “Rush”), who at first idolizes Assange and his mission but later has ideological differences over what to do with the military papers the then-Bradley Manning leaked to them (it was Manning who exposed himself in a chatroom).  Continue reading

Captain Phillips

11 Oct

‘Captain Phillips’: True-life pirate drama never hits dramatic depths you’d expect

By Tom Meek
October 11, 2013

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Back in 2009 the world watched rapt as a U.S. cargo ship was seized by pirates off the coast of Africa. To save his crew, the captain offered himself up as hostage and was subsequently cordoned off in a lifeboat pod with a posse of armed and anxious pirates looking for a multimillion-dollar ransom. Eventually the Navy and SEAL Team 6 got involved and brought about a quick resolution. It made for great drama then and would seem a natural fit for film, but as harrowing as “Captain Philips” is, it never quite gets below the surface of the whole ordeal.

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All of this might come as a bit of a surprise, because “Phillips” is directed by Paul Greengrass, who so adroitly chronicled the intrepid doings of doomed 9/11 passengers in “United 93.” His insight and meticulous care for every passenger and their story and plight rang through cleanly and with genuine earnestness. Here that acumen feels lost or, at best, severely muted.  Continue reading