A surreal look at a tragic screen icon and a feisty interpretation of a Medieval teen tale are the film highlights of this week. Also sweeping into theaters on the winds of one eventful promotional tour is the much-discussed “Don’t Worry Darling” with Florence Pugh and Harry Styles. It screened too late for us to review.
Here’s our roundup (we’ll review the Oprah-produced documentary on Sidney Poitier next week).
“Blonde”: Subtlety is nowhere to be found in screenwriter/director Andrew Dominik’s hypnotic, innovative and occasionally brilliant American horror story reimagining of the rise and fall of Norma Jeane Baker/Marilyn Monroe.
Epic in ambition and length (it clocks in at 2 hours, 46 minutes), it’s a visually arresting and disturbing blurry nightmare on the destruction and deconstruction of Monroe, who was lasciviously played off as a “sexpot” and yet was a vulnerable person abused and let down by a litany of men, including an absent, unknown father.
Ana de Armas hurls herself into the challenging role others have played and couldn’t be better, reflecting the splintered torment roiling inside the actor who dazzled in “Some Like It Hot,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and so on. The abundant symbolic images of mirrors make it crystal clear the intentions of Dominik and author Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote the praised 2000 fictional novel the Netflix film is based on.
Told in an elliptical and purposely disorienting manner to make you experience what Monroe endured, “Blonde” avoids at nearly every turn traditional biopic movies, a strategy that will be welcome to some and off-putting for anyone expecting a meat-and-potatoes factual rundown of Monroe’s life, from her traumatic childhood with an emotionally unstable mom (Julianne Nicholson) to her rise in Hollywood, to her best-known husbands (Bobby Cannavale as Bay Area baseball icon Joe DiMaggio and Adrien Brody as playwright Arthur Miller), and her rumored yet unproven affairs that included JFK (Caspar Phillipson) and a threesome with Charlie Chaplain’s son (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson’s son (Evan Williams).
All of this is open to interpretation and key scenes scenes here will likely prompt viewers to search the internet about whether “Blonde’s” most eyebrow-raising sequences — JFK’s supposed rape of Monroe, that aforementioned threesome — are real or imagined. Good luck finding anything definitive.
Setting aside the ethical debate on whether the the NC-17-rated “Blonde” (it actually deserved an R) should have “gone there,” each creative liberty does illustrate the film’s central point that men and our culture have exacted a terrible toll on women.
“Blonde” is undeniably powerful when it comes to hitting on that point, and even though it overstates itself, the abundant talent at work here, including Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (score) and the hair, makeup, costume and production design crew, not to mention the terrific cast, is undeniable. Dominik’s take has its faults, but its unorthodox style and ambition make it leagues more intriguing and meaningful than the standard, play-it-safe biopic. Details: 3 stars our of 4; in select theaters Sept. 24 and available on Netflix Sept. 26.
“Catherine Called Birdy”: Known for her contemporary musings about city life, director/screenwriter Lena Dunham at first seems like an odd choice to adapt Karen Cushman’s beloved novel about a 14-year-old Medieval youth in the England countryside trying to foil endless attempts by her desperate-for-cash dad to land her in betrothal with a rich but unserviceable husband. Yet Dunham’s appreciation for Cushman’s 1994 novel, much of it narrated in a diary form by Lady Catherine of Stonebridge, aka Birdy (played with spitfire by Bella Ramsey), declares itself in scene after scene. The use of contemporary songs clashes with the storytelling itself. What does work is the cast, particularly the disarming Andrew Scott as Birdy’s rather lazy father, as well as Joe Alwyn as her hunky Uncle George and Billie Piper as her sly mom Lady Aislinn. Dunham has made the material more age appropriate than say her “Girls” series, but that doesn’t mean it soft pedals its feminist themes. Birdy’s experiences with jealousies, her first period and her emerging sexuality are interwoven cleverly into the story. It all makes for a pleasing and diverting feminist story for a young generation. Details: 3 stars; in select theaters Sept. 23, on Amazon Prime Oct. 7.
“Do Revenge”: There have been so many re-imaginings of Alfred Hitchock/Patricia Highsmith’s murder-swap classic “Strangers on a Train, it’s hard to think of one reason why we need a new one. Credit director and co-screenwriter Kaytin Robinson for concocting the perfect recipe with this energetic college-set version that loosely draws on that 1951 thriller for inspiration as it fashions a “Clueless” and “Heathers” for these social-media times. Oh, and a “Cruel Intentions,” too, since Sarah Michelle Gellar plays a headmistress in a killer cameo. The plotting, conniving and vengeance at hand in “Do Revenge” runs circles around the other 20-something comedies that Netflix has been churning out of late. Camila Mendes (of “Riverdale”) is shaping up to become one of our best young actors. She plays popular and shrewd Rosehill Private College student Drea Torres, who hides her not-so-preppy roots and is the leader of a sort-of mean girls posse. A leaked video intended for her cocky boyfriend Max (Austin Abrams) dethrones her, and eventually she befriends unfashionable outcast Eleanor (Maya Hawke) and devises a plan of cruel intentions. Trouble, unforeseen obstacles and surprises ensue in this skewering of bad social media behavior and the society’s cruel class pecking order. Along with countless laughs and witty lines, there’s an edge to “Do Revenge” that draws just enough blood to match its infectious style and repartee. Details: 3 stars; now available on Netflix.
“Raven’s Hollow”: If practically every Marvel and DC superhero and “Star Wars” character can land an onscreen origins story, why shouldn’t that wicked writer of the dread and the macabre — Edgar Allan Poe — get one too? In this Shudder original, the mind behind “The Raven,” “The Fall of the House of Usher” and the terrifying “Tell-Tale Heart” short story gets a fine if gory backstory about what fueled his nightmarish writing and drinking. Don’t take it literally, of course. Director/co-screenwriter Christopher Hatton along with writing partner Chuck Reeves shake down a lot of Poe references in an imaginative, sometimes snicker-worthy atmospheric horror yarn wherein Poe (William Moseley), a dashing West Point military cadet, stumbles with four other cadets upon an upstate New York village terrorized by a critter called The Raven. Hatton doesn’t skimp on the carnage, and while a bigger budget would have helped, this is an effective little creeper for those who swoon over Gothic-looking fright flicks and the works of one of our most twisted American writers. Details: 2½ stars; available Sept. 22 on Shudder.
“Buried”: The 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche”: With the snow and ski season (hopefully) arriving in the next couple months, Tahoe City residents Steven Siig and Jared Drake’s heartfelt documentary on a March 31, 1982 tragedy that left seven dead serves as a powerful cautionary tale. Composed of poignant interviews, re-enactments and footage from the avalanche itself, it highlights the valiant work of first responders and reminds us that Mother Nature’s unpredictability should be respected. Details: 3 stars, in select theaters Sept. 23.
Contact Randy Myers at [email protected]