Review: ‘Blonde’ (2022), starring Ana de Armas

September 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ana de Armas in “Blonde” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Blonde” (2022)

Directed by Andrew Dominik

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the Los Angeles area, from 1933 to 1962, the dramatic film “Blonde” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After a troubled childhood being abused by her mentally ill single mother, Norma Jeane Mortenson becomes a superstar actress named Marilyn Monroe, but her personal demons haunt her and lead to a life of failed romances, drug addiction and unfulfilled wishes to become a mother.

Culture Audience: “Blonde” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of Marilyn Monroe and “Blonde” star Ana de Armas, as well as anyone who has a tolerance for seeing movies that show the very dark sides of fame and Hollywood.

Ana de Armas in “Blonde” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Marilyn Monroe Trauma Porn is a more accurate title for this very divisive drama, which blurs fact and fiction, with mixed results. Ana de Armas’ risk-taking, tour-de-force performance (which still has some flaws) is the main reason to watch when this bloated movie drowns in its own tacky pretension. How tacky and pretentious can “Blonde” be?

In real life, legendary actress Marilyn Monroe desperately wanted to become a mother but never achieved her dream of having children because of she had miscarriages and abortions. In “Blonde,” there’s a scene showing a doomed, talking fetus inside Monroe’s body—one of several fetus scenes in the movie. The movie also has multiple bloody and graphic scenes of some of these miscarriages and abortions. In de Armas’ striking performance as Monroe, “Blonde” wants viewers to viscerally react to the kind of pain Monroe went through in her life, no matter how uncomfortable it is to watch.

“Blonde” (written and directed by Andrew Dominik) has some stunning and poignant scenes that are meant to shock people or wrench viewers’ emotions out of their hearts. The movie, which had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in Italy, randomly alternates between scenes in color and scenes in black and white. There isn’t a bad performance in “Blonde,” but de Armas is the cast member who undoubtedly elevates the movie the most.

“Blonde” isn’t all gloom and doom, since it also artfully and faithfully recreates many of Monroe’s most iconic movie movements. They include Monroe performing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in 1953’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Monroe’s famous scene from 1955’s “The Seven Year Itch,” where she stands on a New York City subway grate, and the air gusts from below make the white dress that she’s wearing billow up around her and expose her underwear.

Still, the biggest shortcoming of “Blonde” is that it relentlessly presents Monroe as a trauma victim, when she was actually a much more well-rounded person in real life. (Monroe died in her Los Angeles home of a barbiturate overdose in 1962, at the age of 36.) “Blonde” is based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel of the same name. The novel was also adapted into a two-episode miniseries, which was televised on CBS in 2001, with Poppy Montgomery in the role of Monroe.

The “Blonde” movie and the “Blonde” miniseries are very different from each other. The “Blonde” minseries was middling and unremarkable. The “Blonde” movie goes to extremes that some viewers think go too far. The Motion Picture Association of America gave “Blonde” movie a rare NC-17 rating (prohibiting people under the age of 17 from seeing the movie in U.S. theaters), because of the movie’s sexual content. However, “Blonde” never actually shows full-frontal male nudity (one of the main reasons why movies can get the NC-17 rating) but shows de Armas simulating sex acts that could be disturbing to some viewers.

The “Blonde” novel was also very controversial, even though the “Blonde” movie and book are clearly labeled as works of fiction. The story draws from many facts about Monroe’s life but fabricates many of the hallucinatory sequences, conversations and experiences that are based on speculation on what she could have said and done if she were really in those situations. It’s this speculation that seems to irk people the most, but that seems to be a problem for people who don’t know or who forgot that “Blonde” is labeled a work of fiction.

For example, in real life, when Monroe was a starlet in the late 1940s, there were rumors that she was dating Charlie Chaplin Jr., as reported in the media back then. In Dominik’s “Blonde” movie, this relationship is turned into a three-way romance between Marilyn, Charlie “Cass” Chaplin Jr. (played Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. “Eddy” Robinson Jr. (played by Evan Williams), where they engage in sexual threesomes. It’s one of the few times in the movie where Marilyn seems to be truly happy. (For the purposes of this review, the “Blonde” protagonist character is referred to as Marilyn or Norma Jeane, while the real-life Monroe is referred to as Monroe.)

There have been so many books, news reports, feature articles, impersonators and on-screen portrayals of Monroe, it’s almost impossible for anyone who knows about pop culture not to know something about her. People already have their opinions of Monroe and expectations of how she should be portrayed in anything that could be considered biographical. One of the frustrations of the “Blonde” movie is that this 166-minute film drags on for too long and keeps repeating certain scenarios while leaving out important aspects of Monroe’s life.

For example, the movie’s early scenes show the horrific abuse that Marilyn (then known by her birth name, Norma Jeane Mortenson) endured as a child, but does not show any other aspect of her childhood, such as her education or who her childhood friends were. “Blonde” shows Norma Jeane as a 7-year-old, portrayed by Lily Fisher. Norma Jeane’s mentally ill, single mother Gladys (played by Julianne Nicholson) would beat her, strangle her and once attempted to drown her in a bathtub. Gladys was eventually put in a mental health institution, and Norma Jeane spent the rest of her childhood in foster care.

In these childhood abuse scenes, three themes emerge that are repeated throughout the rest of the movie. The first theme is that Norma Jeane/Marilyn pines for her absent father, whom she never knew. Gladys would tell Norma Jeane and other people stories about Norma Jeane’s father being a “titan of the industry” (what industry, Gladys would never say), when in all probability, he was just an anonymous deadbeat dad. Throughout most of her life, Norma Jeane imagined that her father (who’s heard in a voiceover) would write loving letters to her and promise to reunite with her some day. This fantasy contradicts what Gladys would tell Norma Jeane when Gladys would fly into a rage: Norma Jeane’s father left Gladys because Gladys got pregnant with Norma Jeane.

The second theme uses fire as a visual manifestation of Marilyn’s inner torment. An early scene shows an intoxicated and apparently manic Gladys insisting on driving through a California wildfire, with Norma Jeane as a terrified passenger. Gladys gets agitated when she’s stopped by a police officer, who orders her to go back home. The house ends up catching on fire. There are also recurring images of Norma Jeane/Marilyn walking through a burning building.

The third theme has to do with turmoil over caring for an infant. Gladys tells 7-year-old Norma Jeane that when Norma Jeane was a baby, Gladys couldn’t afford a crib, so she would put Norma Jeane in a dresser drawer to sleep. For the rest of the movie, there are images of Marilyn being haunted by the sounds of a baby crying in a dresser drawer. She tends to experience these hallucinations shortly before or after one of her pregnancies ends in heartbreak for her.

With repetition of these themes during depictions of Marilyn’s failed romances, “Blonde” curiously omits any mention of her first marriage: In real life, Monroe married factory worker-turned-merchant-Marine James Dougherty in 1942, when she was 16. The marriage ended in divorce in 1946, when up-and-coming actress Monroe was on the cusp of major fame.

She would then get married and divorced two more times. Her second husband was to retired baseball star Joe DiMaggio (played by Bobby Cannavale), whose “Blonde” movie character is named The Ex-Athlete. Their marriage, which lasted from 1954 to 1955, was reportedly plagued by his physical abuse to her. Her third and last husband was writer Arthur Miller (played by Adrien Brody), whose “Blonde” movie character is named The Playwright. In real life, Monroe and Miller were married from 1956 to 1961, during the years when her drug addiction worsened.

“Blonde” also portrays Marilyn’s volatile experiences filming director Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy “Some Like it Hot” (co-starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis), with Marilyn and Billy Wilder (played by Ravil Isyanov) clashing with each other, on and off the movie set. The expected Marilyn meltdowns are depicted, with enablers always nearby and ready to give injections or pills to Marilyn, in order to prop her up and keep her working.

In the last few years of her life, Marilyn’s sexual relationship with then-U.S. president John F. Kennedy is depicted as superficial, at least on his part. “Blonde” only lists this character’s name as The President (played by Caspar Phillipson), but it’s obviously supposed to be Kennedy. Marilyn seems to have romantic feelings for him but is afraid to express them, out of fear of not wanting to look like a clingy mistress. When she is literally carried by two aides to President Kennedy’s hotel room for a tryst, an intoxicated Marilyn asks, “Am I room service?” It’s sarcasm with some truth.

Marilyn gives President Kennedy oral sex in a scene that actually has no nudity. But because he calls her a “dirty whore” during this sex act, it’s meant to be entirely degrading for her. At one point, he grabs her by the hair and pushes her, and the movie abruptly cuts to the next scene. Whether or not this aggressive pushing resulted in rape is open to debate, but “Blonde” doesn’t show President John F. Kennedy raping Marilyn Monroe, no matter what some uninformed reports about the movie would suggest.

“Blonde” makes it look like, except for her mother Gladys, the people who repeatedly abused and exploited Marilyn were predatory men, including the unnamed studio executive who gave Marilyn her first big break. The sex scene with him (his face is never shown) can be interpreted as rape or “casting couch” sexual harassment. However, critics of “Blonde” certainly can find unintentional irony in a movie that seems to condemn men who exploit women in the entertainment industry, when “Blonde” (written and directed by a man) can also be interpreted as continued exploitation of Monroe.

The difference in this Monroe quasi-biopic is that de Armas clearly took extra care and control in how she portrayed Norma Jeane/Marilyn, and de Armas added many emotional layers that are not often seen in other on-screen portrayals of Monroe. In her portrayal of Norma Jeane/Marilyn, de Armas shows every range of emotion and makes the audience feel these emotions in several scenes that are sure to nauseate or repulse some viewers. However, de Armas (who is originally from Cuba) is not flawless in her accent work for Marilyn, since her Cuban accent sometimes can be heard in some scenes. This accent inconsistency is a distraction, but it doesn’t ruin the movie.

“Blonde” is one of those movies where the star gives a very memorable and harrowing performance, but most viewers probably will not want to see this movie more than once. Before seeing “Blonde,” many viewers will already know that underneath the glitz and glamour, the real-life Monroe often had a sad, lonely and troubled life. All of that is important to point out, which “Blonde” does almost to a fault. In trying not to over-sanitize Monroe’s story, “Blonde” goes in the complete opposite direction and will make a lot of viewers feel like this story is too dirty and sullies Monroe’s legacy.

Netflix released “Blonde” in select U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022. The movie is set to premiere on Netflix on September 28, 2022.

Review: ‘See How They Run’ (2022), starring Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Ruth Wilson, Harris Dickinson, Reece Shearsmith and David Oyelowo

September 14, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan in “See How They Run” (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/Searchlight Pictures)

“See How They Run” (2022)

Directed by John Patton Ford

Culture Representation: Taking place in London, mostly in 1953, the comedy/drama film “See How They Run” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Asian people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A jaded police inspector and his rookie partner, who have opposite personalities and contrasting styles of working, investigate serial murders that appear to be linked to the planned-for movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery play “The Mousetrap.” 

Culture Audience: “See How They Run” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies that are inspired by Agatha Christie mystery novels.

Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, Sian Clifford, Pearl Chanda, Jacob Fortune Lloyd, David Oyelowo and Ania Marson in “See How They Run” (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/Searchlight Pictures)

“See How They Run” doesn’t quite reach the classic heights of Agatha Christie murder mysteries, which are this comedy/drama movie’s admitted inspirations. However, it’s worth watching for the entertaining performances and clever observations of showbiz. The last third of “See How They Run” stumbles a bit in how the mystery is revealed, but it doesn’t take away from the movie’s overall appeal to viewers who are interested in British movies that poke fun at the entertainment industry in a story about solving crimes.

“See How They Run” is the feature-film directorial debut of Tom George, who is known for directing in British television. His TV credits include his BAFTA-winning work directing the BBC comedy show “The Country,” as well as the BBC comedy “Defending the Guilty.” His keen sense of comedic timing serves “See How They Run” very well, since most Agatha Christie-styled movies definitely do not have the screwball comedy qualities that are in “See How They Run.” Mark Chappell wrote the “See How They Run” screenplay, which is better at crafting characters than it is as explaining some of the unanswered questions in this murder mystery.

Every movie inspired by Agatha Christie’s writing has a fairly large ensemble of characters who are considered suspects or persons of interests in the murder case until the real killer or killers can eventually be revealed. The body count in “See How They Run” is a lot lower than a typical story of this ilk, but that just makes it more intriguing to guess who’s behind the murders. Fortunately, the movie isn’t cluttered with too many chararacters, so it’s easy to keep track of who everyone is.

“See How They Run,” which is set primarily in 1953 London, also balances multiple layers, because it’s a story with several flashbacks, as well as a whodunit that’s directly tied to the real-life, long-running West End production of Christie’s “The Mousetrap.” Although most of the characters in “See How They Run” are fictional, some of the characters are based on real people, including Christie herself. The movie does a better job at handling the flashbacks than it does in trying to show parallels between “The Mousetrap” and the original screenplay for “See How They Run.”

“See How They Run” opens with a scene that is later referred to in flashbacks. In 1953, on London’s West End, several people have gathered for a nighttime party at the Dominion Theatre, to celebrate the 100th performance of “The Mousetrap.” Among the partiers are members of the cast and some people who are involved in making a feature film version of “The Mousetrap,” including American director Leo Köpernick (played by Adrien Brody), who has been blacklisted in Hollywood, due to the Red Scare targeting suspected Communists.

The night of this party will also be the last night of Leo’s life, since he will be murdered in a backstage costume shop by a mystery person wearing a trench coat, a mask and a fedora. The murderer definitely looks like a man, but with these mystery stories, the killer’s gender can’t always be presumed. At first, Leo is attacked by the murderer trying to strangle Leo with a wire. Leo breaks free, but is killed when the murderer beats him to with a fire extinguisher.

A now-dead Leo then provides intermittent narration for the rest of the movie. Not everyone who watches this movie will like this “voice from the dead” narration. However, it’s a director choice that’s quite unconventional and provides a perspective that doesn’t make things easy for viewers, because Leo is eventually exposed as a sleazy character who might be an unreliable narrator.

The two cops who end up being the primary investigators for Leo’s murder are two very opposite people: Inspector Stoppard (played by Inspector Sam Rockwell) is a world-weary alcoholic, who approaches the investigation with a skepticism where he doesn’t come to any conclusions until he sees indisputable evidence. Constable Stalker (played by Saiorse Ronan) is an eager-to-please rookie who’s an Irish immigrant with a tendency to jump to conclusions without hard evidence.

Predictably, Stoppard and Stalker often clash, with Stoppard embodying the cliché of an older cop who’s forced to work with a younger cop and is frequently annoyed by the younger cop in the process. It doesn’t help that Stoppard is very sexist and doesn’t believe that police detective work is a job that women can do as well as men. The supervisor for Stoppard and Stalker is a police commissioner named Harrold Scott (played by Tim Key), who is more concerned about his own public-relations image and career ambitions than he is about getting justice for the crimes investigated by his department.

It isn’t long before Stoppard and Stalker have a group of people to interview and investigate. They include:

  • Petula “Choo” Spencer (played by Ruth Wilson), the no-nonsense producer/chief investor of “The Mousetrap” play. It’s later revealed that she has a motive to prevent the movie version of “The Mousetrap” from getting made.
  • Mignon Saunders (played by Ania Marson), Petula’s eccentric mother. Mignon doesn’t say much, but does that mean she knows more than she’s telling?
  • John Woolf (played by Reece Shearsmith), the wealthy film producer of “The Mousetrap” movie. (This character is based on the real John Woolf.) John is the person who decided to hire Leo, because of Leo’s talent and track record of making award-winning films.
  • Ann Saville (played by Pippa Bennett Warner), John’s administrative assistant and his mistress. Ann is every much in love with John and expects him to eventually divorce his wife and marry Ann.
  • Edana Romney (played by Sian Clifford), John’s wife, who considers herself to be an amateur psychic. It’s revealed in the movie if she knows about John’s affair with Ann.
  • Mervyn “Merv” Cocker-Norris (played by David Oyelowo), the pompous screenwriter for “The Mousetrap” movie. Mervyn and Leo were feuding because Leo didn’t like Mervyn’s script, but Mervyn refused to do a rewrite. Not long before Leo was murdered, Leo and Mervyn had a very public argument where Mervyn threatened to kill Leo.
  • Giovanni “Gio” Bigotti (played by Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), Mervyn’s Italian lover, who is fairly quiet and very supportive of Mervyn. Giovanni and Mervyn are a gay couple in a “don’t ask, don’t tell way,” where they don’t make it obvious but they don’t try to hide the nature of their relationship either.
  • Dennis (played by Charlie Cooper), a Dominion Theatre usher who reported that he saw a “suspicious”-looking man lurking in the area where Leo’s murdered body was found.
  • Richard “Dickie” Attenborough (played by Harris Dickinson), the hotshot actor who’s the star of “The Mousetrap” play. Based on the real Attenborough, this character wants to do everything possible to keep the play going
  • Sheila Sim (played by Pearl Chanda), Dickie’s actress wife (based on the real Sheila Sim), whose career has become overshadowed by Dickie’s. Sheila and Dickie, who are co-stars in “The Mousetrap” play, have been experiencing some problems in their marriage, and their relationship has become somewhat strained.

World-renowned mystery writer Christie (played by Shirley Henderson) makes an appearance in the last third of the movie and does something awkward that isn’t handled very well or is made believable, considering that she is a crime aficionado. This tricky scene is played for laughs, but it could have been thought out in a much better way. Her devoted husband Max Mallowan (played by Lucian Msamati) and her prickly butler Fellowes (played by Paul Chahidi) also make appearances toward the end of the movie.

Constable Stalker is often a bundle of nervous energy when she’s with Inspector Stoddard. She talks quickly and is eager to share her knowledge of movies (she’s a big fan) and crime novels, but he shows disdain for this fiction entertainment influencing her thoughts as police investigator. Later, when Constable Stalker and Inspector Stoddard spend some time alone together, they open up to each other about their personal lives. She’s a widow with a son and a daughter. He’s divorced (his wife left him) with no children. Constable Stalker eventually finds out about Inspector Stoddard’s alcoholism and sees how vulnerable his alcoholism makes him.

Of course, every murder mystery reveals secrets about the people who are being investigated. Leo is not a sympathetic victim. The police find out that he has a long history of sexually harassing and possibly sexually assaulting women. Leo kept meticulous records of the women he encountered.

As an example of Leo being a sexual predator, he was staying at the luxury Savoy Hotel (in a suite paid for by John), where the maids eventually refused to go in Leo’s suite because of how badly he was sexually harassing them. On the night that Leo was murdered, he and Dickie got into a huge physical brawl in front of the party crowd. The fight happened because Leo sexually propositioned Sheila, by implying that Leo would cast her in “The Mousetrap” movie if she had sex with him.

“See How They Run” is filmed and performed much like how this movie would look if it really were filmed in 1953. This type of retro filmmaking won’t appeal to everyone, but the movie does a competent job of recreating the British culture, fashion and production design of that era. There are signs and not-so-subtle indications that Constable Stalker is an outsider not just because she’s a woman in a very male-dominated field but also because she’s an Irish immigrant living in the England.

Rockwell and Ronan, who are both talented in whatever they do, have a crackling chemistry as Stoppard and Stalker that intentionally starts off as uncomfortable to watch but becomes somewhat endearing as Stoppard and Stalker begin to trust each other in this “odd couple” police partnership. Oyelowo is also a standout because he looks like he’s having fun playing the pretentious and flamboyant Mervyn, who has some of the best lines in the movie.a

“See How They Run” falters with a few murky plot developments that raise questions that aren’t really answered. One of them involves the identity of Stoppard’s ex-wife. However, the movie does effectively lampoon a lot of the stereotypes of murder mystery movies, such as the use of flashbacks and using the most obvious suspects as red herrings. There are also many satirical moments about what showbiz people say and do in pursuit of fame, fortune and power.

Are there much better murder mystery movies in the world? Of course. “See How They Run” isn’t among the cream of the crop. However, for people who are inclined to like this genre and like watching talented cast members who give capable performances, this movie can offer some enjoyable escapism.

Searchlight Pictures will release “See How They Run” in U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on September 9, 2022.

 

Review: ‘Clean’ (2022), starring Adrien Brody

February 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Adrien Brody in “Clean” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Clean” (2022)

Directed by Paul Solet

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “Clean” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A man with a shady past tries to be an upstanding person, and he finds himself lured back into a criminal lifestyle to save a teenage girl he has befriended.

Culture Audience: “Clean” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of star Adrien Brody and to anyone who doesn’t mind watching a monotonous crime drama that’s plagued with too many predictable clichés, some of which are borderline racially offensive.

Adrien Brody in “Clean” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Clean” is the title of this dreadful crime drama, but it’s not how to describe this movie’s messy and clunky story that’s a weird mix of low-quality and pretentious. It’s a misguided Adrien Brody vanity project that wants to have a lot of social commentary, but in fact says and does nothing that’s innovative or meaningful. And to top it all off, “Clean” is a very boring movie, where the actors just go through the motions, and everything is directed in a lackluster and generic way.

Brody not only stars in “Clean,” but he also co-wrote the movie’s screenplay (with director Paul Solet) and composed the movie’s musical score. Brody and Solet are two of the producers of “Clean,” which means they sunk money into this embarrassing dud of a movie. There’s a tone-deafness to how “Clean” seems to want to make an important statement about urban decay, but then the movie wallows in the same old tired stereotypes of hollow and forgettable gangsters getting into power struggle fights.

“Clean” is also racially condescending in how it depicts African Americans who live in financially deprived urban areas as being in need of saving by white people, with the movie presenting the “chief savior” as a white man. But to try and make the movie look “edgy,” this “white savior” has a shady past and is a supposedly reformed criminal who’s trying to get his life back on track when he becomes a vigilante. This movie is so on-the-nose cringeworthy that the name of this anti-hero who wants to clean up the neighborhood is named Clean, the character portrayed by Brody. No one ever says if Clean is this character’s first or last name.

In the production notes for “Clean,” Brody makes this statement: “I grew up in New York City. From a young age I was struck by the impact of poverty, drugs and violence afflicting those around me. Although the city has changed, I am still troubled by the prevalence of these problems today that plague our outer boroughs, our upstate rural communities and small towns, as well as many other parts of our country.”

Brody’s statement continues, “As an artist, my work has been shaped by this awareness. I long to tell stories that represent those who are striving to overcome the world’s brutality. ‘Clean’ came about as a tribute to the fearlessness of those, who, in spite of pain, loss and regret, fight to hold on to their humanity and transcend the obstacles they face.”

Apparently, the “Clean” filmmakers’ idea of a “tribute” means doing a dull movie that basically just shows gang violence and the chief villain being a white racist gang leader, who’s headed for a showdown with the movie’s anti-hero, who’s trying to be a vigilante. That’s essentially what “Clean” is about, with a lot of filler showing a brooding Clean attempting to be a father figure to an African American teenage girl and then inserting himself into the violence or causing the violence in formulaic fight scenes. It’s all so lazy and trite.

You know you’re in for a horrendous slog from the movie’s opening scene, where Clean gives a monologue in voiceover as he wanders through the depressing-looking streets of his town in whatever vehicle he happens to be driving. (The movie takes place in an unnamed U.S. city. “Clean” was actually filmed in upstate New York.) Here’s what Clean says in this self-pitying rant: “I’m still looking for answers. I don’t know what the answers are anymore. I just know there’s too much out there. A sea of filth. An endless onslaught of ugliness.”

Clean than goes on to ramble about “sheep shit clogging up our minds, clogging the drains, poisoning our water, turning us to shit. Where does it all go? I’ve got blood on my hands. I’m stained. I’m dirty. No matter how hard I try, I can’t wash away the past.” Get used to more of this tripe, because the movie is full of it.

The movie soon shows that Clean is a recovering drug addict. He goes to support group meetings that include his sponsor Travis (played by Mykelti Williamson), who describes himself as a “pill addict.” Travis also happens to be Clean’s barber and the closest person whom Clean (who’s a loner) can consider to be a friend/confidant. You know where this movie is going as soon as Clean says in one of his voiceover monologues: “A rush of violence is better than dope.”

Clean works in sanitation as a garbage collector, but he makes some money on the side selling items at a pawn shop. An early scene in the movie shows him going into a pawn shop to sell a somewhat rare Electrolux vacuum cleaner, which is in good working condition. There’s really no purpose to these brief pawn-shop scenes except to show that the movie has rapper/actor/filmmaker RZA (of Wu-Tang Clan fame) in a cameo role, as Kurtis, the pawn shop’s owner or manager.

In Clean’s spare time, he paints over graffiti in the neighborhood, so he can look like a model citizen. He also looks out for an African American student named Dianda (played by Chandler DuPont, also known as Chandler Ari DuPont), who’s about 14 or 15 years old. An early scene in the shows Clean driving by Dianda’s house, when he sees her sitting on the porch in the snowy cold. Dianda tells Clean that she accidentally left her keys inside and no one is home. Clean offers her a fish sandwich to eat, and her treats her to a meal at a diner.

In a racially condescending movie filled with negative stereotypes of African Americans, it should come as no surprise that “Clean” has made Dianda a girl who’s “at-risk” (as in “at risk of going into a life of crime”) because she lives in a single-parent, working-class household with no father figure. Her guardian is her single grandmother Ethel (played by Michelle Wilson), because Dianda’s parents died in a car accident. Ethel and Dianda live in a crime-ridden area with run-down houses, because a racially insulting movie like “Clean” doesn’t want to show any African Americans in significant speaking roles unless they represent poverty, crime or drugs.

Even though Clean is financially struggling, the idea that he has to bring food to Dianda is the movie’s not-so-subtle way of showing that Clean must think that Dianda isn’t getting properly fed on a regular basis. He brings her food or takes her out for meals, as if she’s some kind of charity case. Ethel tells Clean, “We don’t need anyone to save us,” and he replies, “I’m just trying to save myself,” but he still tries to be the family’s “white savior” anyway.

It’s not as simple as Clean just wanting to be a “nice guy.” He’s haunted by the death of his own biracial/African American daughter Rheya (played in flashback scenes by Victory Brinker), who died when she was about 5 or 6 years old. The movie shows Clean having dreams about Rheya, where he wakes up distressed because he knows why she’s dead. There’s some selfish motivation for Clean’s interest in Dianda: He’s using Dianda as some kind of therapeutic way to ease his guilt over Rheya’s death.

The movie eventually reveals why Rheya died. Why she died is exactly what you think, considering that Clean keeps talking about his criminal past in his self-indulgent monologues. Predictably, since the movie only cares about Clean’s thoughts and feelings, there’s no real importance given to Rheya’s mother or other family members who might have been affected by the tragic death of this child.

One of the more unrealistic aspects of “Clean” is how the movie—which rolls around in a lot of muck about gangster violence and people being “street smart”—doesn’t show anyone being concerned that Clean (a man in his 40s) wants to hang out so much with a teenage girl who’s not related to him. The movie never mentions how long Clean has known Dianda. It’s all very creepy. But if anyone raised those red flags, it would ruin the filmmakers’ narrative of Clean being the “hero” and “savior” of the story.

The negative stereotypes about African Americans continue. There are some African American gangsters who cross paths with Dianda. And because she’s an “at-risk” young person, the movie makes it look like she could be recruited for the gang’s crimes. It should come as no surprise that at some point in the movie, Dianda ends up in a gangster house of drug activity, and she’s about to be raped. But guess who comes to the rescue, just in the nick of time? (It’s not spoiler information because it’s in the movie’s trailer.)

At another point in the movie, Clean takes on a white crime lord named Michael (played by Glen Fleshler), who’s a drug smuggler. Michael owns a business in town called Kossuth Fish Market, which is really a front for his drug trade. Michael and his henchmen smuggle drugs in fish that go through the market.

Michael’s only child is a son named Mikey (played by Richie Merritt), who’s in his late teens or early 20s. Michael is grooming his son to be a gangster and to eventually take over the drug smuggling business. Viewers first see Mikey when he’s gotten out of prison for an unnamed crime. Michael and some of his thugs are waiting outside in a car to give Mikey a ride home, since Mikey still lives with his parents.

Instead of having a happy family reunion, Michael is furious because when Mikey exits the prison gates, Mikey is greeted by two African American friends, who are involved in a local gang. Mikey and these two pals seem to have a close relationship. And that doesn’t sit well with Michael, who’s a hardcore racist.

In case it isn’t clear that Michael is a racist, he uses the “n” word to describe black people. Not surprisingly, Mikey catches hell from Michael just because Mikey has friends who aren’t white. It bothers Michael more that his son has friends of another race than the fact these these friends are involved in criminal activities too.

Later in the movie, Michael and his goons give a vicious beatdown to some Chinese middlemen who are Michael’s connections in smuggling heroin into the fish market. The reason for this assault is that these middlemen (who import heroin from Asia) are suspected of stealing five bags of heroin that have gone missing.

These accused cohorts also operate a business called Ho Bros. Seafood, as a front for their drug dealing. Not everyone makes it out alive during this assault, which happens in broad daylight in front of Kossuth Fish Market, which is on a street lined with other businesses. It’s as if the “Clean” filmmakers think that the audience wouldn’t notice how dumb it is to commit this crime where there could be plenty of witnesses.

For reasons shown in the movie (but won’t be revealed in this review), the worlds of Clean, the African American gang and the white gang all collide. And you know what that means: mindless shootouts and fight scenes, with Clean being an army of one against his enemies. And don’t think that Dianda and her grandmother Ethel remain unscathed, because they get dragged into this mess. Viewers of “Clean” will feel like they got dragged into a horrific cinematic mess if they watch this junkpile movie until the very idiotic end.

IFC Films released “Clean” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 28, 2022.

Review: ‘The French Dispatch,’ starring Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet and Jeffrey Wright

October 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne in “The French Dispatch” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“The French Dispatch”

Directed by Wes Anderson

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, France, the comedy film “The French Dispatch” features predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After the American editor of The French Dispatch magazine dies, his staffers gather to put together the magazine’s final issues, with four stories coming to life in the movie.

Culture Audience: “The French Dispatch” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Wes Anderson and of arthouse movies that have well-known actors doing quirky comedy.

Lyna Khoudri, Frances McDormand and Timothée Chalamet in “The French Dispatch” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

At times, “The French Dispatch” seems like an overstuffed clown car where filmmaker Wes Anderson tried to fit in as many famous actors as possible in this movie. This star-studded cast elevates the material, which is good but not outstanding. Anderson’s style of filmmaking is an acquired taste that isn’t meant to be for all moviegoers. He fills his movies with retro-looking set designs, vibrant cinematography and snappy dialogue from eccentric characters. “The French Dispatch,” written and directed by Anderson, takes an anthology approach that doesn’t always work well, but the fascinating parts make up for the parts that are downright boring.

The movie revolves around a fictional magazine called The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (also known as The French Dispatch), which is a widely circulated American magazine based in the fictional city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, France. The French Dispatch was founded in 1925. The movie opens in 1975, when the French Dispatch editor/owner Arthur Howitzer Jr. (played by Bill Murray), an American originally from Kansas, has died in the magazine’s offices. The employees have gathered to work on his obituary and reminisce about him and the magazine’s history.

Arthur appears in flashbacks throughout the movie. In one of the flashbacks, Arthur has told his top-ranking staffers that he has put a clause in his will which requires that The French Dispatch will stop publishing after he dies. The staffers are melancholy and a bit disturbed when they hear about this decision. Arthur is loved and respected by his employees, so they oblige his request. Therefore, they know that the French Dispatch issue that will have Arthur’s obituary will also be the magazine’s final issue.

The French Dispatch is a magazine that is known for its collection of stories. In “The French Dispatch” movie, four of these stories come to life and are told in anthology form, with each story told by someone from the magazine’s staff. Some scenes are in color, and other scenes in black and white. Anderson says in the movie’s production notes that The French Dispatch was inspired by his love for The New Yorker magazine. That’s all you need to know to predict if you think this movie will be delightful or pretentious.

The French Dispatch staffers are mostly Americans. They including copy editor Alumna (played by Elisabeth Moss), cartoonist Hermès Jones (played by Jason Schwartzman), an unnamed story editor (played by Fisher Stevens), an unnamed legal advisor (played by Griffin Dunne), an unnamed proofreader (Anjelica Bette Fellini) and an unnamed writer (played by Wally Wolodarsky). All of these aforementioned staffers don’t have in-depth personalities as much as they have the type of quirky reaction conversations and stagy facial expressions that people have come to expect from characters in a Wes Anderson movie. A running joke in “The French Dispatch” is how obsessive Alumna and proofreader are about things such as comma placement.

The staffers who get more screen time and more insight into their personalities are the four staffers who tell their stories. The first story is told in travelogue form by Herbsaint Sazerac (played by Owen Wilson), whose title is cycling reporter. Herbsaint travels by bicycle to various parts of the city. He has a penchant for going to the seedier neighborhoods to report what’s going on there and the history of how certain locations have changed over the years. During his travels, he visits three other French Dispatch writers who tell their stories. They are J.K.L. Berensen (played by Tilda Swinton), who is the magazine’s flamboyant art critic; Lucinda Krementz (played by Frances McDormand), a secretive essayist who likes to work alone; and Roebuck Wright (played by Jeffrey Wright), a lonely and brilliant writer with a typographic memory.

J.K.L.’s story is “The Concrete Masterpiece,” which is about the how a “criminally insane” painter named Moses Rosenthaler (played by Benicio del Toro as a middle-aged man and by Tony Revolori as a young man) is discovered and exploited while Moses is in prison for murder. One of the paintings that first gets attention for Moses is a nude portrait of a prison guard named Simone (played by Léa Seydoux), who is his muse and his lover. Moses has a makeshift art studio in prison for these intimate painting sessions, which he is able to do because Simone gives him a lot of leeway and protection from being punished.

An unscrupulous art dealer named Julian Cadazio (played by Adrien Brody), along with his equally corrupt and greedy uncles Nick (played by Bob Balaban) and Joe (played by Henry Winkler), find out about Moses’ talent and are eager to make huge profits off of Moses’ work. These art vultures figure that they can take advantage of Moses because he’s in prison. Julian, Nick and Joe get a tizzy over how much money they can make off of Moses, who is a mercurial and unpredictable artist. Imagine these art dealers’ panic when Moses decides he’s going to stop painting until he feels like painting again. There’s also a Kansas art collector named Upshur “Maw” Clampette (played by Lois Smith) who comes into the mix as a potential buyer.

“The Concrete Masterpiece” is the movie’s highlight because it adeptly weaves the absurd with harsh realism. Swinton is a hilarious standout in her scenes, because J.K.L. is quite the raconteur. She delivers her story as a speaking engagement in front of an auditorium filled with unnamed art people. It’s like a pompous lecture and bawdy stand-up comedy routine rolled into one. You almost wish that Anderson would make an entire movie about J.K.L. Berensen.

Lucinda’s story is “Revisions to a Manifesto,” which chronicles a youthful uprising in the French town of Ennui, when young people stage a labor strike that shuts down the entire country. At the center of this youthful rebellion are two lovers named Zeffirelli (played by Timothée Chalamet) and Juliette (played by Lyna Khoudri). Zefferelli (a college student) is the sensitive and romantic one in this relationship, while Juliette has a tendency to be aloof and no-nonsense. Although “Revisions to a Manifesto” has some visually compelling scenes depicting the strikes and protests, the overall tone of this story falls a little flat. Chalamet’s performance is very affected, while McDormand is doing what she usually does when she portrays a repressed character.

Roebuck’s story “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” which is a tale of kidnapping and other criminal activities. The story starts off being about a famous chef named Nescaffier (played by Stephen Park), who is hired to serve Ennui-sur-Blasé’s police commissioner (played by Mathieu Amalric), who is just named The Commissaire in the story. But then, the story becomes about The Comissaire’s son/crime-solving protégé Gigi (played by Winsen Ait Hellal), who gets kidnapped by some thugs, led by someone named The Chauffeur (played by Edward Norton). The kidnappers say that Gigi will be murdered unless a recently arrested accountant named Albert (played by Willem Dafoe), nicknamed The Abacus, is set free from jail.

“The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” ends up being too convoluted and somewhat sloppily executed. Liev Schreiber has a small role as a Dick Cavett-type TV talk show host who interviews Roebuck on the show. There’s some whimsical animation in this part of the movie. But ultimately, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” is a story about a lot of people running around and making threats with no real sense of danger.

Although it’s admirable that Anderson was able to attract so many famous actors in this movie, after a while it seems like stunt casting that can become distracting. Viewers who watch “The French Dispatch” will wonder which famous person is going to show up next. Some well-known actors who make cameos in “The French Dispatch” include Christoph Waltz, Saoirse Ronan and Rupert Friend. Anjelica Huston is the movie’s voiceover narrator.

“The French Dispatch” can almost become a game of Spot the Celebrities, since there are so many of them in this movie. That being said, there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch. However, the movie would’ve benefited from taking a chance on casting lesser-known but talented actors in some of the prominent speaking roles, in order to make the film a more immersive viewing experience instead of it coming across as an all-star parade.

Despite its flaws, there’s no doubt that “The French Dispatch” is a highly creative film that has Anderson’s unique vision and artistic flair. He has a love of language and a knack for keeping viewers guessing on what will happen next in his movies. And these bold risks in filmmaking are better than not taking any risks at all.

Searchlight Pictures released “The French Dispatch” in U.S. cinemas on October 22, 2021.

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