Tag Archives: Ana de Armas

Endurance Test

Blonde

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Andrew Dominik felt like an odd choice to bring Joyce Carol Oates’s epic fictionalization of Marilyn Monroe’s life to the screen. His films up to now, though excellent, wouldn’t necessarily suggest an aptitude for a female focused biopic.

Most recently, the filmmaker’s crafted two magnificent documentaries on singer/songwriter Nick Cave. Prior to that, he made two woefully underseen Brad Pitt dramas (Killing Them Softly, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) after his Aussie breakthrough, Chopper. Each of these films is excellent, and each of them is broodingly, tenderly, decidedly masculine.

If Dominik was an unconventional pick, Cuban performer Ana de Armas seemed a downright peculiar choice for the lead role. She’s no doubt beautiful enough to play the legendary stunner, and her work in Knives Out and Hands of Stone have shown her versatility as an actor.

And why not get a little nutty? Monroe’s story has been told more times than Dracula’s – at least seven features and TV movies have been made about Marilyn, and she’s figured prominently in countless other flicks. Can they give us something we haven’t seen?

Yep. They give us nearly 3 hours of NC-17 wallowing.

Dominik’s film, which he adapted himself from the source novel, does little more than fetishize Monroe’s suffering.

De Armas fills the role well enough. Yes, her accent takes you out of scenes from time to time, but that’s not really the trouble with the character. Monroe gets a single opportunity to stand up for herself in two hours and 46 minutes. It’s fun. It’s great to watch the character who’s been abused and misused the entire film finally feel a quick surge of pride.

This one sequence – the one moment of agency given Monroe in the film’s entire running time ­– becomes the catalyst of her downfall, of course. Prior to this moment, de Armas is asked only to hover on the verge of tears. Nearly every instant after is degradation for a character rendered nearly inhuman by broadly brushed daddy issues and mental instabilities.

While the film’s visual style is often intriguing, Dominik’s aggressive approach feels borrowed. He channels Lars von Trier with wave upon wave of punishment, then recalls Gaspar Noe through extended takes featuring shock-value POVs. And the irony of that NC-17 rating is that it’s not earned the old-fashioned way. The scene that almost certainly drew the most ire from the ratings board does not feature one second of nudity, yet lands as excess most wretched. If it all doesn’t add up to an abuse of de Armas, then it amounts to abuse of an audience.

The point of Blonde seems to be that the almost global objectification of Marilyn Monroe meant an unendurably tragic life and death. To prove the point, Dominik objectifies Marilyn Monroe to a point that is nearly unendurable.

Love Is a Battlefield

Deep Water

by George Wolf

Adrian Lyne hasn’t directed a movie in twenty years. It’s been twice that long since the 1957 source novel by Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) has been adapted for the big screen.

They’re both back with a new vision for Deep Water, a sometimes frustrating erotic thriller that can never fully capitalize on all of its possibilities to be either erotic or thrilling.

Vic and Melinda Van Allen (Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas) are living a life of luxury in New Orleans with their young daughter Trixie (the incredibly cute Grace Jenkins). Vic developed a computer chip used for drone warfare, so his days of early retirement are mainly filled with watching Melinda openly flaunt her affairs at parties.

When one of Melinda’s past lovers turns up dead, Vic lets her latest boy toy (Brendan Miller) know that he’s the murderer. But Vic is only trying to scare the kid away, right? Neighbor Don (Tracy Letts with another standout supporting turn) is suspicious early on, and when another of Melinda’s lovers (Euphoria‘s Jacob Elordi) drowns at a pool party, plenty of others are looking at Vic as the prime suspect.

Screenwriters Zach Helm and Sam Levinson provide Lyne with undercurrents of subtext that are never fully explored. We assume Vic doesn’t want to subject Trixie or his finances to a messy divorce, but the deeper we dig, it’s clear this marital arrangement is feeding some need for both parties and fostering a concerning worldview for their child. Lyne showcases the aimless privilege of their daily lives to hint at a lesson on the rot of wealth, then pivots, often to Vic’s creepy but uneventful hobby of raising snails.

And though Lyne has made his name on the steamy sexual politics of 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful, there’s more smoke here than fire. And water, water everywhere.

You won’t notice grand chemistry between Affleck and de Armas, which is a credit to both. This is a marriage of psychological warfare, and it is Vic and Melinda’s contrasting plans of attack that keep us invested, especially in the early going. De Armas embodies the cruelly uninhibited as well as Affleck brings the condescending and calculated, which is a major reason the major twist to Highsmith’s original ending works as well as it does.

For these two, it feels right.

But only for a moment, because strangely, Lyne doesn’t let it linger. Instead, he quickly cuts from the credits to a performance from the adorable Jenkins singing along to a cheery pop ditty from the 1970s.

If it’s an attempt at chilling humor, it falls hard, becoming another anchor weighing down Deep Water just when it starts cruising.

Shaken and Stirred

No Time to Die

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Daniel Craig’s had a good run. As Bond, he delivered a much needed transformation for the Brit spy series, shouldered the best film in the entire franchise (2012’s Skyfall), and allowed considerable nuance to seep in to the characterization.

Bravo.

He needed a bold and fitting final film to cap his time with MI6, and 2015’s disappointing return to the old guard Spectre wasn’t it. A global plague pushed his finale back nearly two years. Luckily, No Time to Die was worth the wait.

Craig’s retired agent is lured back to the game (of course he is) by a global threat (of course it is) involving an old nemesis (natch), a new rival (sure) and the beauty who broke his heart.

Yes, but wait, because co-writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation) takes these familiar elements in new directions, thanks mostly to Craig’s wearily vulnerable performance.

Bond is a tough gig for an actor because there has generally been so little actual acting required – or allowed. And while Craig shows us a wizened soul with humor, longing and vulnerability to spare, Fukunaga surrounds that performance with a story worthy of his send off.

Since the Craig era began, his Bond has always seemed more determined to exist in a more relatable world with more universal stakes. Here, Craig’s final outing speaks often of love, legacy, sacrifice, and precious time, against the threat of human contact itself becoming fatal. And while there are still plenty of moments to suspend disbelief, this film again benefits from the move away from the parody-ready version of 007 that reigned for decades (cheekily emphasized here by Bond’s brief adventure with Ana de Armas’s rookie agent, Paloma).

Mysterious new villain Safin (Rami Malek) shares a tragic past with Bond’s love Madeleine (Léa Seydoux), while the legendary Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) is still able to pull deadly strings from inside maximum security.

Bond’s old friend Luther (Jeffrey Wright) and an over-eager newbie (Billy Magnussen) recruit Bond for the CIA, seemingly pitting him against M”s (Ralph Fiennes) MI6 team and its new 007 agent, Nomi (Captain Marvel‘s Lashana Lynch). Can Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) sit this one out and remain neutral?

Not bloody likely.

Opening with a tense and expansive 26-minute prologue, Fukunaga unveils thrilling set-pieces and gorgeous visuals that beg for a big-screen experience. Aided mightily by a soaring, throwback score from Hans Zimmer, Fukunaga infuses NTTD with a respectful sense of history while it marches unafraid into the future.

The one-liners, callbacks and gags (like Q’s multi-piece tea set) are well-placed and restrained, never undercutting the nearly three-hour mission Fukunaga clearly approached with reverence.

Where does James Bond go from here? Hard to say, but this 007 doesn’t care. Five films in 15 years have changed the character and the franchise for the better, and No Time to Die closes this chapter with requisite spectacle and fitting emotion.

Late Shift

The Night Clerk

by Hope Madden

Any film centering on a character on the Autism spectrum is risking a lot. It’s far too easy to simplify this character to a handful of tics that lend themselves to a narrative device: Mercury Rising, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Forest Gump. (That’s right. I said it.)

But if it’s done well, if the character is a character and not a narrative device, the film can benefit immeasurably.

The Night Clerk falls somewhere in between these two options.

Writer/director Michael Cristofer leans on a committed cast, including the always wonderful Tye Sheridan in the lead, to pull you into a mystery thriller that may be too simple for its own good.

Sheridan is Bart. He works nights at a hotel near his home and in his off hours he practices. He rehearses human interaction, small talk. He and his mother (Helen Hunt, a touching mixture of brittle and tender) live day to day in what has clearly become well-worn patterns. Most nights at work are probably uneventful, but on this particular night, Bart discovers a murder.

The detective on the case (John Leguizamo) suspects Bart, but Bart is distracted by a kind hearted and lovely new guest (a convincing Ana de Armas).

Without Sheridan’s committed performance, the film would fall apart. At no point does Sheridan, Cristofer or this film condescend to Bart. The audience isn’t one step ahead of the character; we are piecing through the mystery along with him. We aren’t asked by the film to pity Bart but to be frustrated along with him, and Sheridan is up to the task of keeping this character from tipping into martyrdom.

The problem with this film is not the characterization of a young man with Asperger syndrome. The issue is the writing.

Cristofer may nail the characters—and for the most part, with the help of talented performers, he does. But the lapses in logic when it comes to the policework, not to mention the basic simplicity of the plot itself, keeps the film from really engaging or staying with you.

The plot feels almost too uncomplicated to be a TV drama let alone a feature film. Tensions over the outcome never rise above a flutter, and regardless of how strong the performances—de Armas, Hunt and Sheridan, in particular—this is a thriller that rarely manages to generate any real tension.

As a character study it’s intriguing, sometimes comical and certainly respectful. It’s a showcase for solid acting, but not much else.

Parasites

Knives Out

by Hope Madden

It’s interesting that three of the most deliciously watchable films of 2019 exist to question the societal value of the rich. Earlier this year, the action-comedy bloodbath Ready or Not pitted one regular schmo in a bridal gown against a mansionful of one-percenters looking to end her life.

Too bloody for you? How about Joon-ho Bong’s masterpiece of social commentary, Parasite? Who, exactly, is it living off the blood of others?

Rian Johnson follows this path with the hoot and a half that is Knives Out.

If you only know Johnson for his brilliant fanboy agitator The Last Jedi, you should give yourself the gift of every other movie he’s ever made, Looper and Brick, in particular. This guy is an idiosyncratic storyteller, one who balances style and substance to create memorable worlds you aren’t ready to leave when the credits roll.

Knives Out is his own Agatha Christie-style take on the general uselessness of the 1%. And it is a riot.

Christopher Plummer is Harlan Thromby, the recently and mysteriously deceased mystery novelist whose family is in a pickle. Though they believe their gregarious patriarch offed himself, the notion seems unlikely however clear the death scene seems to make it.

Renowned gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (that’s a name!), played by a priceless Daniel Craig, joins two police detectives (LaKeith Stanfield and Johnson go-to goof Noah Segan) to dig into the affair.

As little as possible should be said about the plot, as it is a whodunnit, but at the very least it’s appropriate to acknowledge this cast.

The spoiled and entitled are played by Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Jaeden Martell (from It), Toni Collette as well as Michael Shannon and Chris Evans and their sweaters. Each finds a memorable character and each clearly has an excellent time doing so.

Credit also Ana de Armas as Marta, the homecare nurse and anchor for the story. De Armas has previously been cast primarily for her looks (Blade Runner 2049, War Dogs, Knock Knock), but proves here that she can lead a film, even a film with this strong an ensemble. Her Marta is wholesome but funny, gullible but smart. Her chemistry with Craig is enough to generate some interest in their next collaboration. (Well, that and the writing.)

Johnson proves that you can poke fun without abandoning compassion. More than that, he reminds us that, as a writer, he’s shooting on all cylinders: wry, clever, meticulously crafted, socially aware and tons of fun.

Split Decision

Hands of Stone

by George Wolf

Early in Hands of Stone, legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert DeNiro) is schooling future legendary boxer Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez) on technique versus strategy. The film tells us there are vital differences, then shows us these differences aren’t just in the ring.

Like a fighter too caught up in the moment to remember the plan, the film boasts solid fundamentals but employs a tired strategy while exploring more openings than it can safely land.

Duran was born in Panama, rising to stardom against a backdrop of poverty and political unrest in his homeland. So of course his story is told from the old white guy’s point of view. Trainers are a natural element in boxing movies, true, but anchoring this one with Arcel is just bad strategy. I mean, Mickey was great at telling us that women weaken legs, but he never altered the long game: telling Rocky’s story.

Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s respect for Duran is evident, and sincere enough to not shy away from some of the unflattering aspects of Duran’s past. Equal confidence that his story could be told on its own terms would have been welcome. Ramirez rises above it with a terrific performance, capturing the early hunger and eventual crash of a gifted champion who often seemed plagued by contradictions.

DeNiro brings a nicely underplayed grace to the wise narrator’s role while Ana de Armas is dynamic as Duran’s wife Felicidad, showing her recent one-note role in War Dogs was a complete waste of both time and talent.

The fine performances do much to keep the film grounded as it struggles to find a consistent voice. Jakubowicz wants us to understand the social, political and familial forces that nagged Duran, but also lament how great boxing used to be and appreciate Duran’s rivalry with Sugar Ray Leonard (nicely done Usher Raymond).

It’s a crowded narrative, even before Arcel’s own family dramas and mob connections come to call.

Hands of Stone shows admirable heart and strong technique, but is often derailed by scattershot focus and a questionable strategy. Call it a split decision.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1W1L0WnVnjY