BLONDE (2022) – Netflix’ NC-17 Rated Fictional Account of Marilyn Monroe Major Disappointment

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Some movies have “it.” Others don’t.

BLONDE (2022), unlike its subject, Marilyn Monroe, doesn’t have “it,” which is too bad because Ana de Armas is terrific in the lead role as Norma Jean, aka Marilyn Monroe, but this fictional account of the life of Monroe based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates just never came to life for me. It didn’t grab me at the outset, nor did it pull me in later as it went along, and for a movie that runs nearly three hours, that’s a long time to be uninvolved. A very long time.

The first issue I had with this movie is why do we need a fictional account of the life of Marilyn Monroe? Wasn’t her real life fascinating and tragic enough? I couldn’t really wrap my head around the idea. Sure, it’s based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel, but again, why? I was especially distracted by this in this day and age where a growing number of political leaders make their living promoting fictional accounts as true, and so this whole notion didn’t sit well with me here in 2022. That being said, I went in with an open mind, and was ready to enjoy this one regardless, but the film itself prevented me from doing so.

BLONDE, which is rated NC-17 for strong sexual content, nudity, rape, and child abuse, is now streaming on Netflix and playing at some theaters. Most of the content here is typical of R rated films. The one exception is a rather vulgar scene between Monroe and JFK, vulgar in the way the President treats Monroe. But this is all fiction so… it doesn’t resonate as it otherwise would.

The film opens with a young Norma Jean living with her alcoholic and abusive mom (Julianne Nicholson), giving the film a very unpleasant first few minutes which seem to go on forever before finally cutting to an adult Norma Jean (Ana de Armas) as she first breaks into the film industry. And in this story, she gets her first role after being raped by the studio head. He has his way sexually with her, and then he gives her the role. Again, fictional account. This never happened.

The rest of the movie follows Monroe’s traumatic life and career, following its factual path through movies she made and the lovers she had, but all with a fictional twist, right up until her tragic death in 1962 at the age of 36.

BLONDE tries to be stylish, and director Andrew Dominik mixes black and white cinematography into the mix, as well as different variants of color photography, and even inserts de Armas into real scenes from Marilyn Monroe’s movies where de Armas stands side by side with the real actors from those movies. Yet, none of this worked for me. In terms of style, BLONDE is vastly inferior to another bio pic from earlier this year, ELVIS (2022) by Baz Luhrmann. That film had me hooked within its opening seconds and it never looked back. BLONDE, in spite of all its technical innovations, labors from start to finish.

A large part of the problem is its pacing. It moves like a snail, and never builds on what has come before it. It just moves from one plot point to another. It really could have used some serious editing.

There are some impressive acting performances. I’ve been a fan of Ana de Armas for a while, and she is making a ton of movies these days. We just saw her in THE GRAY MAN (2022) and before that in the James Bond movie NO TIME TO DIE (2021). Her performance as an A. I. being was one of the better parts of BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017).

Here, she gives it her all as Marilyn Monroe, and at times she is good enough to lose herself in the role, and you think you are watching the real Monroe. Other times, however, de Armas’ Cuban accent is still detectable. If BLONDE had been a better movie, this distinction would have worked better because it would have supported the notion that this is a fictional account and not a true biography, but the film just isn’t up to the task, and so I imagine de Armas’ accent will only irritate Marilyn Monroe fans.

Bobby Cannavale turns in a fine performance as the “Ex-Athlete,” based of course on Joe DiMaggio, who famously married Marilyn Monroe, and Adrien Brody is even better as “The Playwright,” based on Arthur Miller, who married Monroe after she and DiMaggio divorced. Neither one of these two have much of an impact here though, since neither actor is in the movie all that much.

The screenplay by director Andrew Dominik based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates falls flat, and then some. I was amazed at how much I did not like this movie. Considering the subject matter, Marilyn Monroe, the actor in the lead, Ana de Armas, and the impressive looking cinematography.

None of it comes together. The story struggles. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the narrative because it’s a fictional account of a real person, and so these traumatic events which shaped Monroe’s life— didn’t actually happen, at least not in the way as depicted in this movie.

For me, the bottom line is this: did this really happen to Monroe? No. So, why do I care?

The short answer? I don’t.

So, in spite of tremendous potential, BLONDE was a huge disappointment.

Monroe and her fans deserve better.

I give it one and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

THE GRAY MAN (2022) – Emphasis on Action over Story Hinders Netflix Pairing of Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans

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Too much action. Not enough story.

That’s how I felt after watching THE GRAY MAN (2022), a new action thriller from Netflix, which is also playing in theaters. In spite of an impressive cast and a pair of talented directors, at the end of the day, this one was all about the action, which admittedly was very good, but in terms of story, sadly, there simply wasn’t much there.

In THE GRAY MAN, a shadowy CIA assassin known as Six (Ryan Gosling), uncovers a plot by his superiors Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page) and Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick) to assassinate a fellow agent who had learned of their illegal activities, and once Six learns this information, he also becomes a target. To take down Six, Carmichael hires their most ruthless and unpredictable assassin, Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) who immediately abducts Six’s former handler FItzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) and his young daughter Claire (Julia Butters) for leverage.

Six ends up teaming with fellow agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) who is also targeted by Carmichael and Lloyd, who seem to want to take out every other CIA assassin on the planet. And that’s it for plot, as the rest of the movie is simply a set up for one action scene after another as Lloyd and Six go after each other. And it’s not a very original plot either, as it’s right out of a Jason Bourne movie.

THE GRAY MAN was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the guys who directed AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVL WAR (2016). They know how to make blockbuster action movies. The action sequences in THE GRAY MAN are excellent, and I’m not going to lie, I had fun watching them, but without an exciting story or fun characters, the action scenes on their own weren’t enough for me to really enjoy this movie.

There’s an exciting sequence on a plane, which hearkens back to two old James Bond movies, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987) when Six is tangling with assassins on the plane which has a big hole in it, and MOONRAKER (1979) when Six falls out of the plane without a parachute and then fights a bad guy in midair, two sequences which were both done better in those aforementioned James Bond movies. There are slick car chases, lots of loud shoot-outs and explosions, and some nifty hand-to-hand combat scenes, all professionally executed, but without a story or memorable characters, none of them truly resonate.

Joe Russo wrote the screenplay, along with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, and all three of these guys have lots of screenwriting credits, but it didn’t really help them here. The plot, as I said, is right out of a Jason Bourne movie, and the characters are cardboard and dull, with the exception of Chris Evans’ character, Lloyd.

I’m a fan of the work of Ryan Gosling, and he’s enjoyable here as Six, and he’s also believable in the role of super assassin. But, Six is kind of a one note character, and ultimately, he doesn’t really give Gosling a lot to do other than to look unstoppable and heroic. And he is heroic. Unlike Jason Bourne, who in spite of always wanting to clear his name, still operated with a sense of uncertainty and explosiveness about him, Six is a good guy to his core, which kinda makes him boring.

Chris Evans has more fun and more success playing against type as the over-the-top villain, Lloyd Hansen. This guy is not Captain America! He’s the complete opposite of Six in that he is all villain. Strangely, at the end of the day, he’s also on the boring side. And that’s because even though this movie is called THE GRAY MAN, neither main character has gray areas, and that’s just not that interesting. Characters with more balance in general are more captivating. So, it’s kinda sorta fun watching Evans ham it up as a bad guy, but it’s not completely satisfying because it turns out Lloyd is nothing more than a glorified assh*le.

I’m also a huge fan of the work of Ana de Armas, and her performance as super tough assassin Dani was probably my favorite of the movie. She just starred in the latest James Bond movie NO TIME TO DIE (2021), a film I enjoyed much more than THE GRAY MAN, but it was a very small role, and basically, she just got to strut her stuff in one brief sequence. She’s in THE GRAY MAN a whole lot more, and the movie is that much better for it. She’s believable in her action scenes, and unlike Gosling or Evans, she holds back on letting us know who Dani is exactly, and if there’s one character in the movie with a gray area, it’s Dani.

THE GRAY MAN reunites Ana de Armas with Ryan Gosling, as the two co-starred in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and they work well together, as in both movies they generated some decent on-screen chemistry.

Rege-Jean Page and Jessica Henwick are okay as the main villains in the movie who are constantly pulling strings behind the scenes, but neither of them is terribly exciting. Neither is Billy Bob Thornton as Six’s former handler Fitzroy. It’s a rather thankless role without any depth.

I did enjoy the work of Dhanush, who plays yet another super assassin Avik San who’s called in late in the game to take down Six. Avik, in his brief time on screen, benefits from some gray areas in his personality. If only the two leads had benefitted from the same.

Also in the cast are Alfre Woodard as another CIA handler, an unrecognizable Wagner Moura as a shady character who provides new identities, and in a blink-if-you miss him cameo, Shea Whigham plays Six’s abusive father in a flashback. This is the third movie in as many weeks in which the plot involved an abusive dad, following WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022) and THE BLACK PHONE (2022). It’s also the third time that Wagner Moura has co-starred with Ana de Armas, as they previously starred together in SERGIO (2020) and WASP NETWORK (2019).

THE GRAY MAN was okay. With its talented cast, directors, and writers, it should have been better. And while I enjoyed its action scenes, even those weren’t fantastic. Another recent Netflix actioner EXTRACTION (2020) starring Chris Hemsworth had superior action sequences. But what ultimately drags THE GRAY MAN down is its unoriginal blah story, and characters who in spite of the film’s title, just don’t possess many gray areas.

All action and no plot make THE GRAY MAN a dull man.

—END—

NO TIME TO DIE (2021) – It’s No Time to Miss Daniel Craig’s Last Bond Movie

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I finally caught up with NO TIME TO DIE (2021), the fifth and final Daniel Craig James Bond film.

Released in November theatrically, it then made its way to OnDemand/streaming services for a rental price of $19.99, and now you can rent it for a more welcoming price of $5.99. Anyway, one of the drawbacks of seeing a film a while after its initial release is word of mouth is out there and so you hear an awful lot, and what I was hearing about NO TIME TO DIE was how good a movie it was. So, there were some expectations here.

Anyway, I’ll cut to the chase. I’m happy to say that the word of mouth was accurate. NO TIME TO DIE is an excellent James Bond movie. I loved it. It’s the perfect send-off for Daniel Craig’s take on the character.

NO TIME TO DIE opens with a scene right out of a horror movie, with a young girl and her mom being terrorized by a man with a mask. The action jumps ahead to events following the last movie, as we find James Bond (Daniel Craig) and the new love of his life Madeleine (Lea Seydoux) enjoying a new life together, having survived the ending of SPECTRE (2016).

Now, the Daniel Craig Bond films tell an ongoing narrative, and the movies have all been connected in terms of plot, which is something that the previous James Bond movies really did not do. I’ve always like this, as it added some freshness to the series. However, SPECTRE is my least favorite Craig Bond movie, and so I can’t say I was excited to be sitting down to watch more of the story between Bond and Madeleine.

Anyway, as you might imagine, their new life is short-lived, as the bad guys show up to put a stop to it. Worse yet, Bond suspects Madeleine of leading the bad guys to them, decides he doesn’t trust her anymore, and puts her on a train telling her she will never see him again. Then it’s time for the opening credits. Yup, nearly thirty minutes pass before we even get to those opening credits. Sometimes these James Bond movies just need an editor! Although truth be told, in spite of the overlong prologue sequence and a total running time of two hours and forty-three minutes, NO TIME TO DIE is paced rather well, has a decent story to tell, and for me passed by quickly and didn’t feel at all like it was nearly three hours.

Back to those opening credits. NO TIME TO DIE has a theme song sung by Billie Eilish, a song that hasn’t really been shown much love. But I like it, and the lyrics definitely tie into the events shown in the movie’s pre-credit sequence.

As for the rest of the plot, it all does come together and makes sense (even the bizarre opening bit with the masked killer!), bringing closure to events from all the previous movies. Even though Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) is in prison, he and his SPECTRE henchmen are still trying to kill Bond, but a new bad guy is in town, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek)…. the name sounds like Lucifer Satan with a lisp….who hates Blofeld even more than Bond does. Safin has developed an incredibly dangerous biological weapon which uses people’s DNA, and he uses it to wipe out SPECTRE, but since he can also use it to wipe out anyone he wants with ease, he’s caught the attention of MI6. M (Ralph Fiennes) is personally interested because MI6 was secretly working with this biological formula, but Safin stole it from them and weaponized it. So, M sends the new 007, a female agent named Nomi (Lashana Lynch), and Bond himself once he returns to active service, to find and stop Safin.

Which makes for strange bedfellows. As Bond tells Blofeld, if Blofeld gives him the information he needs, he will actually have to use it to save Blofeld’s life, to which of course Blofeld shrugs him off. Madeleine is also brought back into the story because she has ties to both Blofeld and Safin, and so once more Bond has to deal with his feelings for her.

At the end of day, all of these story elements work, making for a story that remains strong throughout the movie. And there are more plot points which I have not mentioned here. Overall, it is an excellent screenplay by a bunch of people: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Where does NO TIME TO DIE rank with the other Craig Bond movies? The best remains the first, CASINO ROYALE (2006). Most folks love the third film SKYFALL (2012), but for me the first two thirds of this movie are exceptional, but the third act drops off dramatically and just doesn’t work for me. I actually prefer the second film in the series QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) over SKYFALL. The weakest of the serious was the previous installment, SPECTRE (2015) with writing and a story that didn’t make much sense.

The other reason the previous two Bond films didn’t work for me was due largely in part to Daniel Craig’s lackluster performance as Bond in both those movies. In both those films, SKYFALL and SPECTRE, it seemed as if he had mailed it in. Gone were his sharp cold killer instincts from the first two movies. In their place was indifference. He seemed bored with the role.

Here in NO TIME TO DIE, Daniel Craig is back at the top of his game, turning in his best performance as Bond since CASINO ROYALE. It also helps that the character is placed in some new situations, and Craig is more than up to the task of taking Bond in new directions. As such, getting back to ranking, I would rank NO TIME TO DIE as the second best of the Craig Bond films, coming in right behind CASINO ROYALE.

And a large part of this is Daniel Craig’s performance. He’s an older Bond here, he’s in love, he’s bitter over what he believes is a betrayal of love, and later when he takes on the villain it’s with a deep sense of understanding of the world. In short, James Bond has learned a lot over the years, and he uses this knowledge to take down a lesser experienced villain.

I enjoyed Lea Seydoux more as Madeleine this time around than I did when she played the character in SPECTRE. Again, the writing here helps. She’s in a much more interesting and compelling storyline. In SPECTRE, she just seemed too young for Bond. But here, due largely to her performance and the writing, that thought didn’t cross my mind at all.

Lashana Lynch caught some well-deserved buzz for playing Nomi, the first female 007. She’s really good here.

I’m a big fan of Ana de Armas, and she has a small role as another agent, Paloma. She’s excellent, and the brief action sequence she gets to share with Bond is one of the best in the movie. I really wish she had been in this one more.

Rami Malek is fine as main villain Safin, although he’s not in the movie a whole lot, and so he’s not really a game changer. But when he is onscreen, he’s very good. As is Christoph Waltz as Blofeld, reprising the role from SPECTRE, although he’s in the film less than Malek.

I really enjoy Ralph Fiennes as M, and he’s every bit as good here as he always is. Jeffrey Wright returns for the third time as CIA agent and Bond buddy Felix Leiter, and like Bond in this one, gets a dramatic memorable send-off.

And Naomie Harris is back as Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw is back as Q. It was also good to see Rory Kinnear back as Tanner.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga does a nice job with this one, and there are plenty of exciting action sequences, as you would expect to find in a James Bond movie. Car chases, thrilling fight scenes, assaults on buildings, and a very intense conclusion all contribute to A+ action sequences from start to finish.

The music also utilized the main theme from the George Lazenby James Bond movie ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969). The most memorable part of that movie, other than of course it was the first Bond film not to star Sean Connery as Bond, was that James Bond gets married, and his wife is shot dead by Blofeld in the film’s final reel. Every time that theme played here in NO TIME TO DIE, it served as deadly foreshadowing that the love story here with Bond and Madeleine was doomed to a tragic ending, and while the ending here differs greatly from the one in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, the foreshadowing is real.

And strangely for a James Bond movie, it was the love story here between Bond and Madeleine that works the best and really drives this movie along. It gives Bond motivations above and beyond what audiences are used to and shows a side of the character we rarely get to see. And it’s also realistically told from both characters’ perspectives.

NO TIME TO DIE is an excellent James Bond movie. The action sequences are second to none, and even better, the story works on a much deeper level than most Bond films, its main love story is really good, and Daniel Craig delivers one of his best Bond performances ever.

In short, it’s no time to miss NO TIME TO DIE.

—END—

10 Worst Movies of 2020

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And now for the 10 Worst Movies of 2020.

Just like with by Top 10 Best Movies List, this year’s list comes with a giant asterisk, thanks to COVID-19 closing movie theaters across the country. While I have continued to review movies throughout the year, they have been on streaming and OnDemand services, and so without national theater chains to provide the same movies for all of us, a lot of movies I saw this year, you may not have, and vice versa.

Okay, now that that is out of the way, let’s get to the list:

10. EMMA

This one doesn’t really belong on a Worst Movies List, but as I rank all the movies I see throughout the year, it did happen to fall 10th from the worst. This elegant version of Jane Austen’s novel is simply a colossal bore, pure and simple. Looked great, but the script and characterizations put me to sleep. Stars Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead role as Emma, and she’s much better in the current and superior Netflix TV show THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2020). The film also wastes the usually reliable Bill Nighy. One of the few movies this year I saw on the big screen. Still didn’t help.

9. COFFEE & KAREEM

Forgettable Netflix buddy comedy starring Ed Helms. So forgettable not even worth mentioning!

8. THE RHYTHM SECTION

I love Blake Lively, but this was a really stupid action movie that not even Lively could save. She plays a woman who learns that the plane crash that killed her family wasn’t an accident, and so she…with no prior experience… decides to learn how to become an international assassin to make the terrorists responsible for her family’s death pay. Yup. That’s believable. Her trainer, played by Jude Law, is so good at what he does that she becomes the female equivalent of Jason Bourne and wipes the floor with these terrorists all rather easily. The film tries for an ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) vibe, but the plot is too dumb for it to pull it off.

7. WONDER WOMAN 1984

Where to start with this one? There are so many ways that this sequel is awful. For starters, it’s everything the original WONDER WOMAN is not. I didn’t even enjoy Gal Gadot’s performance as Wonder Woman. But the biggest culprit is the script, and a plot built around a relic that… wait for it…. grants wishes! That’s right, Aladdin, you wish it, and it can happen! Heck, that’s how this story brings back a deceased character from the first movie, played by Chris Pine. No basis in reality. Instantly one of the worst DC superhero movies of all time.

6. SPENSER: CONFIDENTIAL

Another Netflix clunker. This time it’s Mark Wahlberg playing Boston private detective Spenser from the Robert B. Parker novels, only the film changes everything about the characters, and tries to turn this into a comedy. So, not only will Spenser purists be disappointed, but so will those of us who like a good comedy, since it’s not funny at all. You know things are bad when not even Alan Arkin can make you laugh!

5. THE TURNING

Forgettable horror movie starring Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard, loosely based on Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw. Turn this one off.

Betty Gilpin as Crystal in “The Hunt,” directed by Craig Zobel.

4. THE HUNT

A lot of folks liked this one, a dark action thriller about a group of liberals who are hunting human prey, folks they view as right wing low lifes. Stars Betty Gilpin as the one victim who won’t quit, and yes, she is very good and the best part of this movie. But for me, the rest of this film was a misfire from start to finish.

3. LIKE A BOSS

Another unfunny comedy, this one starring Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne as friends sparring with villainess Salma Hayek over a beauty company. Very few laughs here, making it a chore to sit through.

2. WASP NETWORK

Netflix film about Cuban spies in the United States completely wastes the talents of Edgar Ramirez, Penelope Cruz, Wagner Moura, and Ana de Armas. Features the most uneven script of the year, with characters appearing and then disappearing for long chunks of time. Fails to build any kind of momentum. Probably the dullest movie I watched all year.

THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN
  1. THE BABYSITER: KILLER QUEEN

My pick for the worst movie of 2020 is THE BABYSITTER: KILLER QUEEN, a testament as to why you shouldn’t make a sequel just for the same of making one. A sequel to the clever and lively horror/comedy THE BABYSTTER, this flick isn’t funny, isn’t scary, and isn’t enjoyable in the least. Terrible script. By far, the movie I enjoyed the least this year.

And there you have it, my list of the 10 Worst Movies I saw in 2020.

Okay, on to 2021!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

WASP NETWORK (2020) – Story of Cuban Spies Suffers From Horrible Pacing, Disjointed Narrative

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wasp network

It’s the pacing, stupid.

I wanted to see WASP NETWORK (2020) because I enjoy most of the actors in it.

Edgar Ramirez was excellent in HANDS OF STONE (2016),  where he played boxer Roberto Durant in a movie that didn’t receive much love but I liked a lot.

Wagner Moura knocked it out of the park as Pablo Escobar on the TV show NARCOS (2015-16), and Ana de Armas has been showing up everywhere these days and making lasting impressions in nearly every film she’s in, from BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) to KNIVES OUT (2019). She co-starred with Edgar Ramirez in HANDS OF STONE, and with Wagner Moura in SERGIO (2020), a film I reviewed several weeks back that I liked much more than WASP NETWORK. And she was in THE NIGHT CLERK (2020) another movie I just reviewed, and she’s slated to star in the next James Bond movie NO TIME TO DIE (2020).

And the movie also stars Penelope Cruz.

WASP NETWORK actually tells a very interesting story about Cuban spies who infiltrate the United States to thwart the efforts of other Cubans in the U.S. who are working to overthrow Castro but don’t care how they do it, often dealing with drug dealers and terrorists. So, the film actually has a pro-Castro slant since the protagonists in this one are working to keep Castro in power. Which is an interesting take on the subject of Cuba-U.S. relations.

However, it is all undone by some absolutely horrible pacing and one very sloppy narrative style.

WASP NETWORK opens with Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramirez) defecting from Cuba to the United States, leaving his wife Olga Salanueva (Penelope Cruz) and young daughter behind. Settling in Florida, he joins a group of Cuban resistance fighters whose outward mission is to assist fellow Cubans who want to enter the United States but who are secretly working behind the scenes to end the reign of Fidel Castro. The first thirty minutes or so of the movie tell Rene’s story.

Then the action switches to Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura) who also defects from Cuba and who also joins the same group Rene did. Juan Pablo also meets and falls in love with Ana Magarita Martinez (Ana de Armas) who he eventually marries. The second thirty minutes of the movie tells Juan Pablo’s story.

So, the first hour of the film, while slow, is at least coherent, as we are introduced to two similar characters in similar situations, and when they meet, the stage is set for the story to go somewhere. Unfortunately, where it goes and how it gets there is a major disappointment.

See, we are introduced to a third character, Jose Basulto (Leonardo Sbaraglia) who we learn runs a Cuban spy ring which is secretly working to thwart the efforts of the group that Rene and Juan Pablo work for, and furthermore, out of the blue we also learn that Rene and Juan Pablo are actually part of this group of spies working for Basulto.

So, as stories go, again, there’s nothing wrong with this one, but there is something very wrong with the way it unfolds. The number one problem is the pacing. The first hour of the film is exceedingly slow, but this can be forgiven because at least a couple of interesting characters are being introduced.

But during the film’s second half, the pacing issues do not improve. In fact, they get worse. Furthermore, there’s the added element of a bizarre narrative style that sinks this one long before the end credits roll, and with a running time of two hours and seven minutes, that’s a long time to sit through a film that clearly is not working.

Director Olivier Assayas can’t seem to focus on more than one character at time. The story is told in chunks, each chunk on one character, and so folks in this movie tend to disappear for long stretches. Two thirds of the way through there’s also a montage which comes out of nowhere which introduces the members of the Wasp Network. The only trouble is, we never see these folks again until we learn their fates just before the end credits roll, as the only Wasp Network members the movie focuses on are Rene, Juan Pablo, and Jose Basulto. It’s a bizarre moment that doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the movie.

Assayas also uses camera fades way too often, making for a disjointed narrative. He used them with greater success in the underrated ghost story flick PERSONAL SHOPPER (2016) starring Kristen Stewart, a film I liked a lot.

The screenplay by Assayas and Fernando Morais struggles to tell a coherent story, which is too bad because as stories go it’s an intriguing one on a subject I wanted to learn more about. But it fails on all levels. The dialogue is sleep-inducing, the narrative is poorly executed, and the characters remain low-key and lifeless throughout.

Not even a cast of actors whose talents I enjoy were able to save this one. Penelope Cruz probably fares the best as Rene’s long suffering wife who never really leaves his side, even though they spend most of the movie separated from each other. But her best scenes don’t come until the latter half of the movie.

Edgar Ramirez is fine as Rene, in what is the closest role the film has to being a lead, but it’s role that is not fleshed out satisfactorily enough. Things are even worse for Wagner Moura as Juan Pablo. His character is not developed at all, and while Moura channels charm and charisma in the role, it’s all for not.

And Ana de Armas is reduced to an unimportant supporting role, and her character pretty much disappears for the entire second half of the movie.

WASP NETWORK was filmed in 2019 by the way but was only released in June 2020.

WASP NETWORK was a major disappoint for me, mostly because I’m a story guy, and the story told here was done so very sloppily and without any sense of pacing.

Instead of watching WASP NETWORK, I suggest you defect to another movie choice.

—END—

 

 

 

THE NIGHT CLERK (2020) – Drama About Murder Suspect With Asperger’s Only Mildly Entertaining

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the night clerk

Ana de Armas and Tye Sheridan in THE NIGHT CLERK (2020).

While THE NIGHT CLERK (2020), a tale about a young man with Asperger’s syndrome who becomes the suspect in a murder case, is being billed as a crime/drama/mystery, the emphasis here really is on drama.

The crime, a murder which occurs right at the beginning of the movie, surprisingly never becomes a driving force here, and it’s not much of a mystery.

What it is though is a vehicle to showcase the talents of actor Tye Sheridan, who does a really nice job in the lead role as Bart, the young man with Asperger’s. Sheridan is an up an coming actor who has starred in READY PLAYER ONE (2018) and played Cyclops in the two most recent X-MEN movies, but his work here in THE NIGHT CLERK is better than what he was allowed to do in those movies.

Bart (Tye Sheridan) works the night shift at the front desk of his local hotel. In an effort to learn more about people and how to interact with them, since that is something Bart struggles with because of Asperger’s, he secretly records the activities and conversations of the hotel guests in their rooms. He does this by setting up cameras in the rooms and watching from his laptop. While this is voyeuristic and creepy to the rest of us, Bart doesn’t mean any harm by this, and he innocently watches people to practice conversing with them.

But one night, he witnesses a murder in one of the rooms, and rather than call the police, he runs into the room where later one of his co-workers finds him sitting by the dead body of the murdered woman.  Police Detective Espada (John Leguizamo) questions Bart, and because there are holes in his story about his whereabouts, Espada considers Bart a person of interest in the case.

Bart lives at home with his mother Ethel (Helen Hunt) who does her best to support her son although it is difficult since her husband and Bart’s father has passed away. As Detective Espada continues to poke and prod Bart in search of answers, things become more complicated when Bart befriends another hotel guest, Andrea (Ana de Armas) a beautiful young woman with problems of her own. Bart finds himself immediately attracted to Andrea, and as he tries to get to know her better, the murder plot thickens.

Well, it doesn’t thicken that much, which is the biggest problem with THE NIGHT CLERK. If it were a stew, it’d be darned watery, that’s for sure! And that’s because the murder takes a back seat to Bart’s story and his crush on Andrea, and the mystery itself is pretty obvious. You’ll know from the get-go exactly where this one is going, in terms of who is out to get who.

The screenplay by Michael Cristofer, who also directed, works much better as a character study than as a crime drama. Bart’s character is well-written, and his observations on life as seen through his eyes are intriguing. For example, when he talks to Andrea about love, and speaks of how being in love is not really an emotion but an addiction, he’s spot-on. As is the script. When Bart struggles to be sociable, it’s refreshingly honest.

Tye Sheridan delivers a topnotch performance as Bart. He effortlessly captures what it’s like to live with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s the best I’ve seen Sheridan on screen yet.

Ana de Armas is really good as Andrea, even though her character is stuck in the lame murder mystery plot that never really gets off the ground because it’s so obvious. Her best scenes are when Andrea interacts with Bart, and they share some tender moments together.

I like Ana de Armas a lot, and she’s making movies left and right these days, which is fine by me, because she’s fascinating to watch. She was just in SERGIO (2020) which I reviewed a few weeks back. She was amazing in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) and her performance was one of my favorite parts of that movie. She was also in KNIVES OUT (2019) and she is slated to star alongside Daniel Craig in the next James Bond movie, NO TIME TO DIE (2020).

Helen Hunt is solid as Bart’s mom Ethel, although it’s a small role and she ultimately doesn’t really do a whole lot. The same sadly can be said for John Leguizamo as Detective Espada. He actually has some of the best scenes in the movie, but he disappears for long stretches when the film becomes more about Bart and Andrea and less about the murder investigation. And towards the end, when you expect that things will be heating up, they simply don’t. So while Leguizamo is good, he’s not in this one enough to really make much of a difference, in the way, for example, he did with his fine supporting work in THE INFILTRATOR (2016) in which he starred with Bryan Cranston.

There are some plot holes as well. For example, Bart is suspected early on of the murder, and it comes to light that he’s been recording guests in their rooms, yet he doesn’t lose his job! He’s not even given a warning of any kind. I thought this was weird. Also, he’s a suspect at first because Espada wrongly believes Bart never left the hotel, which he did, and he had a very memorable verbal exchange with a clerk at a store. This clerk would no doubt remember Bart. Yet, we never see Espada following up this part of the story, which had me scratching my head why we saw the exchange in the first place if not to establish an alibi for Bart.

The ending is also edited strangely. It’s set up to make the audience think one thing, while something else is really happening. The problem is in terms of Bart’s character, it doesn’t make much sense for him to do what he did the way he did. He could have simply dealt with Espada directly. In other words, it comes off as a forced contrivance.

THE NIGHT CLERK works best as a character study of Bart Bromley, a young man with Asperger’s, who as a suspect in a murder case, falls for a mysterious young woman Andrea, who’s also a guest at the hotel where he works. It’s not much of a crime drama or a murder mystery, as the criminal elements are downplayed, and the mystery is way too obvious to matter all that much.

At the end of the day, THE NIGHT CLERK is a mild drama with some solid acting performances by the principal players. It’s watchable, but it certainly would have benefitted from a tighter script with more emphasis on the murder melodrama.

An Alfred Hitchcock thriller this one ain’t!

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SERGIO (2020) – Moving Bio-Pic of U.N. Diplomat Sergio de Mello Speaks to the Value of Diplomacy

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Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas in SERGIO (2020).

SERGIO (2020), a Netflix original movie, tells the story of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian born United Nations diplomat who at the height of his career went to Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003 to monitor elections, an effort that unfortunately met with tragic results.

SERGIO stars Wagner Moura in the lead role as Sergio de Mello. Moura, who starred in the Netflix series NARCOS (2015-2017) as Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, is a charismatic actor who was outstanding as Escobar. He’s similarly effective here as Sergio de Mello. He carries this movie, and his performance is one of the main reasons to see it. He plays De Mello as a career diplomat who was very good at what he did, brokering peace deals between hostile parties, and who puts his career above all else, even at the expense of missing valuable time with his two sons.

Directed by Greg Barker, a filmmaker known for his documentaries, SERGIO doesn’t tell its story in linear fashion. It jumps back and forth through time, showing different key points of de Mello’s life and career. It’s a style that ultimately works, even as the pacing sometimes lags.

When de Mello brings his team into Iraq, he is met with resistance by the United States, especially from U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford) who warns Sergio not to stray from U.S wishes, that he’s there to support the positions of the United States. Of course, de Mello disagrees, arguing that the United Nations is an independent organization and as such is not beholden to any one country.

When a massive bomb strikes the United Nations headquarters in Iraq, de Mello finds himself trapped underneath all the rubble, and it’s here where most of the story unfolds, as he thinks back to events which brought him to this moment in time. A big part of his story is his romance with Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas). The film chronicles how they met and shows how they eventually end up working together for the U.N., and she is there that day at the U.N. headquarters when the bomb goes off.

Ana de Armas and Wagner Moura share a wonderful chemistry together. Even though SERGIO is intended as an historical drama, really, its love story is one of the best parts of the movie. De Armas and Moura electrify the screen when they’re together, and their love story only adds to the sadness of the tragedy in Iraq.

Ana de Armas is a really good actress who has appeared in such movies as KNIVES OUT (2019), BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and HANDS OF STONE (2016). She’s also slated to star in the next James Bond movie, NO TIME TO DIE (2020). For me, up until now, de Armas’ most prominent role was as the holographic Joi in BLADE RUNNER 2049, but I think she’s even better here in SERGIO.

Brian F. O’Byrne adds fine support as Sergio’s friend and right hand man Gil Loescher, who also is trapped with Sergio under the rubble of the bombed building. And Bradley Whitford in a small role is sufficiently annoying as U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer who comes off as the bully on the block, in effect saying do what the U.S. wants or else. His most telling line is when he tells Sergio “welcome to the big leagues” implying that Sergio is out of his league in Iraq and only the U.S. knows how to handle such a difficult situation.

Craig Borten wrote the screenplay, based on the book Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save The World by Samantha Power, and for the most part it does a really good job of fleshing out Sergio’s story.  After you have watched this movie, you will have an understanding and an appreciation of who Sergio de Mello was and what he meant to the world. The film also touches upon what the absence of de Mello has meant to the world since that time. Borten also co-wrote the screenplay to DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013), a script which earned him an Oscar nomination.

The major drawback of SERGIO is at times with its talky scenes it plays much more like a television show than a movie. It doesn’t really have a cinematic feel to it, and while it is a Netflix original, it was intended to play at the theaters as well, plans which were changed because of COVID-19.  Last week I reviewed the Netflix original movie EXTRACTION (2020), and that film definitely had a cinematic feel which would have been right at home on the big screen. I can’t say the same for SERGIO.

And at times the pacing slows down somewhat.  But these are minor issues. Overall, SERGIO is one of the better films I’ve seen this year.

It enjoys some really powerful emotional moments. One of the best is when Sergio talks to a woman in Timor in a private meeting. It’s such an authentic yet quiet moment. It is one of the most moving sequencs in the film. The scenes in Iraq also work, recalling that chaotic volatile time. And all the scenes between Moura and Ana de Armas are lively and romantic, and really lift the story to a type of love story that I wasn’t expecting. Their scenes together are all exceptional.

SERGIO is a moving drama that tells the important story of Sergio de Mello, a story that is even more relevant today as the world continues to shift away from the value of diplomacy. Sergio’s life and sacrifice is a testament to the power of what one can achieve through diplomacy, and sadly to what happens when those efforts are stamped out by acts of violence.

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HANDS OF STONE (2016) – A Knockout of a Movie That No One Is Noticing

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Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro, and Ruben Blades in HANDS OF STONE (2016).

 

HANDS OF STONE (2016), the new movie about welterweight boxing champion Roberto Duran, is one of those movies that I probably liked more than I should have.  It’s not really getting great reviews, and it’s receiving zero hype, but I loved it.  For me, everyhing about this movie worked.

Maybe that means I’m just a sucker for boxing movies.  Or perhaps it’s just a really good movie.

HANDS OF STONE is told from the perspective of legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro).  And if there’s one weakness to this movie, it’s that at times there’s a bit too much of Arcel’s voice-over narration, as it shows up in places where it’s not necessary, where standard dialogue and visual narrative would have sufficed.

And so we learn right from the get-go that Roberto Duran changed Ray Arcel’s life, as we hear it directly from Arcel’s mouth.  We meet Duran as a child in poverty-stricken Panama, and we see through his young eyes his disdain for the United States, which he views as an oppressor nation.  Amazingly, he convinces a local boxing trainer to train him, and so he’s boxing pretty much as a child.

We next see Duran (Edgar Ramirez) as a young man wooing the beautiful Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas) who he’ll eventually marry.  Duran is introduced to the wealthiest man in Panama, businessman Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades), who in turn introduces Duran to trainer Ray Arcel, knowing that Arcel has what it takes to make Duran a champion.

But their union is not an easy one.  Duran wants no part of an American trainer, and while Ray clearly recognizes Duran’s talent, he’s prohibited by the mob from ever making money off boxing again.  Years earlier, Ray tried to convince mobster Frankie Carbo (John Turturro) to loosen his grip on boxing in New York City, so they could branch out into the television market.  Carbo said no, Ray went ahead anyway, and Carbo arranged to have Ray killed.  Ray survived, but he promised never again to make money off boxing, and in return, the mob let him live.

Ray solves his own personal problem by agreeing to train Duran for free, and Duran also changes his mind, setting the stage for a championship run.  Standing in their way is American superstar boxer Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond).  Duran sees beating Leonard as his chance not only to become champion but also to earn Panama the respect of the world and to humiliate the United States in the process.

And the more success Duran achieves, the more he’s swallowed up by big money boxing, falling victim to its lure in ways he never fell in the ring, even as aging Ray Arcel continually fights to protect him.

HANDS OF STONE tells a rousing story, one that I enjoyed a lot since I didn’t know much about Roberto Duran other than the results of his two championship fights with Sugar Ray Leonard.

The cast here is wonderful.  Edgar Ramirez shines in the lead role as Roberto Duran. He makes Duran a volatile force who is as undisciplined and hotheaded as he is talented. Indeed, some of the best parts of HANDS OF STONE aren’t the boxing sequences, which certainly are done very well, but the scenes between Ramirez and De Niro in the corners of the ring.  De Niro’s Ray Arcel is constantly fighting with Ramirez’s Duran trying to get him to follow his wisdom, which Duran often sees as limiting, as he just wants to let loose and pound his opponent.  Some of these verbal spars are more intense than the physical ones in the ring.

Likewise, Ramirez also shares powerful scenes with Ruben Blades’ Carlos Eleta.  And when the three of them are on screen together, watch out.  The verbal punches fly.

Ramirez captures the energy and charm of Duran and makes him watchable throughout.  I really enjoyed Ramirez in last year’s JOY (2015) where he played Joy’s (Jennifer Lawrence) husband, in a film that also paired him with Robert De Niro.  Ramirez also played the priest in the underwhelming horror movie DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014).  As much as I liked Ramirez in JOY, he’s even better here in HANDS OF STONE.

Robert De Niro is excellent as Ray Arcel.  It’s fun to see De Niro in a role that does not hide his age but actually makes him look older with a receding hairline and whispery white hair.  He also enjoys some of the best scenes in the movie, with riveting dialogue, as he teaches Duran his philosophy of boxing— always have a strategy and stick to it— and as he argues with Carlos Eleta.  Ray Arcel represents the pure side of boxing, the sport, while Eleta represents what Arcel sees as destroying boxing:  big money.

Ruben Blades, who plays Daniel Salazar, one of the best character on TV’s FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, is also very good as Carlos Eleta.  He brings Ray Arcel into Duran’s world not only to make Duran a champion but to give him some discipline, because Eleta is always fending off the youthful Duran who refuses to respect the rich businessman.

Ana de Armas, who we just saw in WAR DOGS (2016), is drop dead gorgeous and sexy as Duran’s wife Felicidad.  De Armas enjoys a more substantial role here in HANDS OF STONE than she had in WAR DOGS, a role that enables her to show more range and depth, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Singer Usher Raymond makes for a dashingly handsome Sugar Ray Leonard, and he displays the fleeting and fancy footwork of the boxing superstar with seeming ease.  John Turturro makes the most of his few scenes as mobster Frankie Carbo who in spite of their differences really respects and likes Ray Arcel and eventually helps him get the shunned Duran his comeback bout.  Reg E. Cathey, a talented character actor with tons of credits, recently seen as Cajun cook Freddy on the TV show HOUSE OF CARDS, plays Don King and enjoys some memorable moments in some key scenes as the legendary boxing promoter.

It was also nice to see Ellen Barkin play Ray’s wife Stephanie, in a performance that reminded me of Gena Rowlands back in the day.  And in a neat bit of casting, De Niro’s real life adopted daughter Drena De Niro plays Ray’s drug addicted daughter here.

HANDS OF STONE was written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz.  This is Jakubowicz’s first feature film, and it’s an impressive debut.  For my money, everything in this movie worked.

The fight sequences are well done, riveting and exciting.  The photography is lively and energetic, and the editing is quick and efficient.  The film is nearly two hours long, yet it flies by.

Even better than the fight scenes are the scenes of dialogue between Ramirez, De Niro, and Blades.  Jakubowicz also gives the movie an authentic Latin American feel, as well as capturing perfectly the time period of the 1970s and 1980s.

And Jakubowicz does a nice job with the controversial and perhaps signature moment of Duran’s career, where he infamously declared “No mas!” in the ring and walked away from boxing, words that to this day the real Duran swears he didn’t say, yet it’s what he’s most remembered for.

HANDS OF STONE is getting very little hype and meager critical recognition, which is a shame because it’s a rousing entertaining movie that tells the story of Roberto Duran, one of the most talented boxers ever to step into the boxing ring.

There’s no split decision here.  HANDS OF STONE is a clear knockout.

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