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: ‘Deep Water’ (2022), starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas

March 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck in “Deep Water” (Photo by Claire Folger/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

“Deep Water” (2022)

Directed by Adrian Lyne

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the dramatic film “Deep Water” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A wealthy husband, who has an open marriage, becomes the main focus of suspicion when some of his wife’s lovers end up dead. 

Culture Audience: “Deep Water” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, who are the main attractions in this frequently dull and formulaic crime thriller.

Jade Fernandez, Tracy Letts and Kristen Connolly in “Deep Water” (Photo by Claire Folger/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

“Deep Water” is proof that it’s not enough to have good-looking people in a stylish-looking film. It has a basic mystery that’s not very suspenseful, in addition to monotonous mind games played by the central married couple. Perhaps most disappointing of all is that “Deep Water” does nothing new or clever in the seemingly endless stream of movies about marital infidelity that causes chaos in people’s lives.

“Deep Water” director Adrian Lyne has made a career out of these types of movies, with a filmography that includes 1987’s “Fatal Attraction,” 1993’s “Indecent Proposal” and 2002’s “Unfaithful,” his previous film before “Deep Water.” Zach Helm and Sam Levinson adapted the “Deep Water” screenplay from Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 novel of the same name. Unfortunately, the movie has a drastically different ending from the book. The movie’s conclusion is intended to be shocking, but it just falls flat.

Executives at 20th Century Studios obviously thought “Deep Water” was an embarrassing dud, because the movie’s theatrical release was cancelled. “Deep Water” was then sent straight to Hulu and other Disney-owned streaming services where Hulu is not available. It’s also not a good sign that the stars of “Deep Water” have distanced themselves from “Deep Water” by not doing any full-scale publicity and promotion for the movie.

Up until the ending, the “Deep Water” movie (which takes place in the early 2020s) adheres very closely to the book’s original story, with some modern updates and a change of location. Wealthy married couple Vic Van Allen (played by Ben Affleck) and Melinda Van Allen (played by Ana de Armas) live in New Orleans with their precocious 6-year-old daughter Trixie (played by Grace Jenkins), who has an interest in science and is somewhat fixated on the children’s song “Old McDonald.” (In the “Deep Water” book, the story takes place in a small, fictional U.S. town called Little Wesley.) The Van Allens seem to have a perfect life of privilege and leisure. Vic is a retired millionaire because he invented a computer chip that’s used in war drones. Melinda is a homemaker/socialite.

It’s common knowledge among Vic and Melinda’s close circle of friends that Vic and Melinda have an open marriage, although Vic and Melinda have never really come right out and told their friends the details of this arrangement. Melinda flaunts her extramarital affairs by inviting her lovers to the same parties where she and Vic will be. At these parties (the movie has several of these party scenes), Melinda openly flirts with her lovers and sometimes has sexual trysts with them at the parties. Vic ends up meeting these lovers and is mostly polite but distant with them.

Vic and Melinda’s close friends include musician bachelor Grant (played by Lil Rel Howery); married couple Mary Washington (played by Devyn A. Tyler) and Kevin Washington (played by Michael Scialabba); and married couple Jonas Fernandez (played by Dash Mihok) and Jen Fernandez (played by Jade Fernandez). Whenever these friends try to tactfully talk to Vic about Melinda indiscreetly showing off her lovers, Vic brushes off their concerns. Vic gives the impression that he doesn’t want to be a possessive and jealous husband, and that he and Melinda have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” agreement when it comes to any of her extramarital affairs.

During the course of the story, three of Melinda’s past and present lovers are shown in the movie: musician Joel Dash (played by Brendan Miller), who ends up moving away to New Mexico; lounge pianist Charlie De Lisle (played by Jacob Elordi), who has been giving piano lessons to Melinda; and real-estate developer Tony Cameron (played by Finn Wittrock), who is visiting the area to scout for some property. All three men are good-looking and younger than Vic, but Vic has a lot more money than they do. And at some point or another, all three of these lovers are separately invited into the Van Allen home for a social visit.

Melinda has apparently made it a habit to invite each of her extramarital lovers to parties and other social gatherings, but never so that all of the lovers are in the same place at the same time. At these events, Melinda introduces a lover as her “friend,” even though it’s obvious that he’s more than a friend. When Melinda and Vic are at these parties, Melinda spends more time and is more affectionate with her lovers than she is with her husband. Vic often just stands by and doesn’t confront her about it.

There are several scenes that show Melinda drunk at these parties, or coming home drunk, implying that she abuses alcohol. Some of the couple’s friends seem to feel sorry for Vic, because they think he doesn’t deserve to be a cuckold. More than once, Vic is told that he’s a “good guy” who’s well-respected in the community. Not much is told about Melinda’s background (she’s an immigrant who can speak English and Spanish), but several scenes in the movie show that Melinda thinks that she’s quite the seductress.

In the beginning of the movie, it’s mentioned that a man named Martin McCrae, who was one of Melinda’s lovers, has been missing for the past several weeks. Friends and acquaintances of the Van Allen spouses are gossiping that Vic could have had something to do with the disappearance. At a friend’s house party, where Melinda has invited Joel, the gossip goes into overdrive after Vic and Joel have a private conversation in the kitchen, and Vic tells Joel that he killed Martin. Joel can’t tell if Vic is joking or not, but he takes Vic’s comments as a threat, and he quickly leaves the party. Word soon spreads that Vic made this “confession,” and more people in the community begin to wonder if Vic could have murdered Martin.

Before Joel moves to New Mexico because of a job offer, he’s invited to dinner at the house of Vic and Melinda. Vic seems to delight in making Joel uncomfortable with snide remarks. Vic also makes backhanded insults at Melinda. When Vic and Joel are alone together, Vic once again tells Joel that he killed Martin by hitting Martin on the head with a hammer. However, Vic tries to make light of uneasy comments that he makes, by trying to pass them off as misguided sarcasm. Vic’s passive-aggressiveness is an obvious sign that Melinda’s extramarital affairs bother him.

Someone who doesn’t take Vic’s wisecracks lightly is fiction author/screenwriter Don Wilson (played by Tracy Letts), who has recently moved to the area. Don has had middling success by selling a few screenplays that haven’t been made into movies yet. One of these screenplays is about a man (whom Don based on his own personality/background) who uncovers a murder conspiracy in his town.

Vic and Melinda meet Don and Don’s much-younger wife Kelly Wilson (played by Kristen Connolly) at an outdoor party attended by many of the Van Allen couple’s friends. Don likes noir mysteries, so he fancies himself to be an amateur detective. Throughout the movie, Don lets it be known to anyone who’ll listen, including Vic, that he suspects that Vic has something to do with what happened to Martin, whose murdered body is later found shot to death.

Vic’s reputation appears to be saved when another man (who’s never seen in the movie) is arrested for Martin’s murder. However, Martin isn’t the only lover of Melinda’s who ends up dead. It’s enough to say that who’s responsible for the crimes is revealed about halfway through the movie. But even if that information didn’t happen until the end of the film, there are too many obvious clues. The only mystery in the story is if the guilty party will be caught.

One of the biggest failings of “Deep Water” is how it reveals almost nothing about how and why Vic and Melinda fell in love with each other, or even how long they’ve been married. Without this context, it might be difficult for a lot of viewers to care about this couple. Vic and Melinda’s marriage is presented as just a blank void, dressed up with a superficial parade of parties, squabbling and occasional sex. (Affleck and de Armas were a couple in real life when this movie was made, but they’ve since had a breakup that reportedly wasn’t very amicable.)

Vic and Melinda tell each other “I love you” several times, but viewers don’t see any credible passion or respect between these two spouses. The only thing that viewers will find out about what retired Vic likes to do in his free time at home is that he hangs out with his pet snails that he keeps in an aquarium room. The snails are supposed to be symbolic of how Vic acts in his marriage to Melinda.

It could be a marriage of convenience. It could be that Vic and Melinda don’t want the hassle of getting a divorce. They are also devoted parents to Trixie—Vic is more patient with Trixie than Melinda is—and these spouses might not want their child to grow up with divorced parents.

Regardless of the reasons why Vic and Melinda have decided to stay married to each other, “Deep Water” is more concerned with staging repetitive scenes where Melinda tries to make Vic jealous with her lovers, and then she tries to take his mind off of her affairs by getting Vic to have sex with her. Melinda also makes rude comments to Vic such as: “Joel might be dumb, but he makes me enjoy who I am,” and “If you were married to anyone else, you’d be so fucking bored. You’d kill yourself.”

In one of the movie’s party scenes, Vic makes an attempt to show Melinda that he’s attractive to other women when he does something he almost never does at a party: He dances. And he asks Don’s wife Kelly to be his dance partner, as they twirl together and snuggle flirtatiously on the dance floor. Other people, including Melinda, notice the chemistry between Vic and Kelly. Predictably, Melinda gets jealous and tries to re-assert her status as the most desirable and sexiest woman in Vic’s life.

In addition to the superficiality of Vic and Melinda’s marriage, another aspect of “Deep Water” that makes it look phony is that the movie repeatedly tells viewers that Vic is supposed to be very rich, but Vic and Melinda apparently have no house servants, since no servants are ever seen working for this family. Melinda does the family’s cooking, which is not entirely unrealistic for someone of her marital wealth. However, Melinda being the family cook doesn’t ring true when Melinda comes across as a pampered trophy wife who can stay out all night and party with her lovers whenever she feels like it. It wouldn’t have that been hard to cast a few people as background extras to portray servants, since it’s hard to believe that Melinda and/or Vic do their own housecleaning and upkeep of their large home.

An underdeveloped characteristic of “Deep Water” that should have been explored in a more meaningful way is how some people tend to think that those who are wealthy are automatically better than people who aren’t wealthy. In the scene where Don meets Vic for the first time, Don impolitely tells Vic that Vic is probably the person most likely to have done something harmful to Martin. Grant, who is Vic’s most loyal friend, tries to diffuse the tension by smiling and saying: “The moral of the story is Vic is a genius. And he’s rich as fuck.”

Grant’s comment is a reflection of how some people think that being smart and wealthy is the equivalent of being a “good person,” without taking into account that being a “good person” has nothing to do with how much intelligence or money someone has. This false equivalence is a huge dismissal of core values that define people’s true characters and personalities. “Deep Water” seems to make a half-hearted attempt to show how some people are more likely to excuse or overlook bad conduct from someone who is intelligent and rich, but the movie ultimately takes the lazy route by just going for cheap thrills that have been in similar movies.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the cast members’ performances, but there’s nothing that will make viewers feel any real emotional connection to any of these characters. Affleck and de Armas, regardless of their real-life romantic relationship while filming this movie, don’t have much that’s compelling about how they portray Vic and Melinda. After all, Affleck has played many privileged jerks on screen, while de Armas often has the role of a character who uses sex or sex appeal to get what she wants.

A chase scene toward the end of “Deep Water” is extremely hokey and not very believable. “Deep Water” was already paddling around in a sea of mediocrity for most of the movie. But by the time the movie reaches its terrible ending, it ruins any chances that “Deep Water” could have been a “guilty pleasure” thriller.

Hulu will premiere “Deep Water” on March 18, 2022.

Review: ‘The Informer’ (2020), starring Joel Kinnaman, Rosamund Pike, Common, Ana de Armas and Clive Owen

November 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Joel Kinnaman in “The Informer” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Informer”

Directed by Andrea Di Stefano

Culture Representation: Taking place in primarily in New York City, the crime drama “The Informer” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: An ex-convict who’s become a confidential informant to the FBI gets caught up in a power struggle between the FBI, the New York Police Department and a drug kingpin when an undercover NYPD officer gets murdered during a botched drug deal.

Culture Audience: “Informer” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic and generic movies about drug smuggling and undercover investigations.

Clive Owen, Rosamund Pike and Joel Kinnaman in “The Informer” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

There are times when people watching a movie have to suspend disbelief when they have to think to themselves, “It’s only a movie,” because the world created in the movie is not supposed to be a reflection of the real world. But when a gritty crime drama like “The Informer” invests so much of the story’s credibility in trying to be as realistic possible, it’s fair to judge the movie’s merits on how well the movie depicts “the real world.” Although the “The Informer” has moments of action-filled suspense, too much of the movie looks recycled from other better-made films, and some of the scenes are almost laughably unrealistic.

Directed by Andrea Di Stefano, “The Informer” is based on the 2009 Swedish novel “Three Seconds” by Anders Rosland and Börge Lennart Hellström. Di Stefano, Matt Cook and Rowan Joffe adapted “Three Seconds” into the mediocre and cliché-ridden screenplay for “The Informer.” The movie changes the setting of the story (it’s Sweden in the book, New York City in the movie) but the premise is essentially the same: An ex-con who’s an informant tries not to killed in a dangerous double-cross game as he deals with law enforcement and criminals.

In “The Informer,” Joel Kinnaman plays Pete Koslow, a Gulf War veteran who spent time in the fictional Bale Hill Prison for killing a man in a bar fight while defending his wife Sofia (played by Ana de Armas) from the sleazy guy who was harassing her in the bar. Now a heavily tattooed ex-con, Pete (who has post-traumatic stress disorder) lives in New York City with Sofia and their 8-year-old daughter Anna (played by Karma Meyer). Pete has stayed out of trouble since his release from prison, but he has a secret: He’s a confidential informant for the FBI to bust a major drug ring that has been importing and selling fentanyl.

The Polish kingpin who’s the leader of this drug-dealing operation is Rysard Klimek (played by Eugene Lipinski), who’s nicknamed The General. Pete is an American of Polish descent who can speak fluent Polish, and most of The General’s gang members are also Polish. Therefore, Pete has been chosen to help the FBI in busting The General and his drug-smuggling crew.

Pete has been able to infiltrate The General’s gang and gain their trust. The person he is closest to in the gang is an impulsive hothead named Stazek Cusik (played by Mateusz Kosciukiewicz), who sets off a chain of events that will test Pete’s loyalties and put Pete and his family in possibly fatal danger. With Pete’s help, the FBI is ready to do a huge drug bust to arrest The General and his gang.

Pete has been working directly with FBI agent Erica Wilcox (played by Rosamund Pike), and they have meticulously planned how the drug bust will go. Erica has instructed the FBI to “go easy” on Pete when the drug bust happens because he is one of the FBI’s informants. Erica has assured Pete that during the drug bust, he will be taken away safely in an unmarked vehicle.

But things go horribly wrong. Unbeknownst to the FBI, the New York Police Department has been trying to bust The General and his gang too. And the NYPD sent an undercover officer named Daniel Gomez (played by Arturo Castro), who’s been using the alias Carlos Herrera, to pose as a major drug buyer from Mexico. Stazek tells a nervous Pete that there’s been a last-minute change of plans since this “new buyer” named Carlos Herrera has shown in interest in making a big purchase.

During the meeting with “Carlos,” an argument erupts, he reveals he works for the NYPD, and Stazek shoots him in the head. A stunned Pete knows this has completely ruined the drug bust that the FBI had planned for that night. And sure enough, the FBI calls off the plans, and Erica cancels the backup that was supposed rescue Pete. Meanwhile, Stazek and some of his cronies dismember the murdered NYPD officer’s body and throw it into the river at a nearby dock.

Erica’s corrupt supervisor Agent Montgomery (played by Clive Owen) blames her and Pete for the botched drug bust and wants to cut Pete loose from the informant program. Erica begs Montgomery to give her and Pete a little more time to set up another drug bust. Montgomery says that officially the FBI is done with Pete and can’t give her the authority to continue dealing with him. But unofficially, Montgomery tells Erica that if she still wants to pursue the drug bust with Pete’s help, she’s free to do so but she has to inform him of what she’s doing. However, if things go wrong again, she will be forced to take full responsibility and she’ll probably get fired.

Meanwhile, the General is furious over the botched drug deal that got a NYPD officer killed, and he says that Pete owes his life to Stazek. The General orders Pete to get himself arrested so that he can be incarcerated again at Bale Hill Prison, where Pete is supposed to take over the drug operation there. Pete tells Sofia about his secret life as an informant for the FBI and how he’s now being coerced to do what The General wants.

It’s around this time that Pete has a meeting with Erica and Montgomery, who tell Pete that he can redeem himself with the FBI if Pete gets the names of all of The General’s drug operators in Bale Hill Prison. And so, Pete and Sofia stage a domestic violence incident that sends Pete back to Bale Hill Prison faster than you can say “stupid plot development.”

Meanwhile, the NYPD is investigating the murder of Officer Gomez, whose partner Detective Edward Grens (played by Common) is on a personal revenge mission to catch the killer. At first, he suspects Pete of committing the murder. Detective Grens eventually figures out that Pete is an informant for the FBI, so he confronts Erica and Montgomery, who deny knowing anything about Pete, even though Detective Grens has uncovered video surveillance and other evidence that Erica has been in contact with Pete.

Detective Grens decides that the FBI is covering up something, so he makes it known that if the NYPD has to go to war with the FBI, so be it. Detective Grens eventually goes to Sofia (who owns an aquarium shop) to ask for her help, but she has a hard time trusting him. She tells Detective Grens that ever since Pete got arrested for that deadly bar fight, whenever someone has offered to help, the person ends up doing the opposite and Pete gets in more trouble.

And so, with Pete feeling pressure from the FBI, the NYPD and The General who all have their own agendas, this is how the movie sets up dilemmas for Pete on whom he should trust and whom he should betray. The scenes of Pete in prison have the predictable elements that have been seen in many other dramas with prison scenes. Unoriginal stereotypes abound, including typical violent fights between inmates; a corrupt corrections officer named Slewett (played by Sam Spruell), who’s in on the prison’s drug trade; and a prison chief name Warden Leinart (played by Matthew Marsh), who looks the other way at the illegal activities that he knows goes on in his prison.

One of the dumbest scenes in “The Informer” is when Pete makes a desperate phone call from prison to FBI agent Erica, who is officially not supposed to be in contact with Pete at this point in the story. Apparently, the filmmakers want viewers to forget or not know that all inmate phone calls in prison are recorded. Someone who works for the FBI should know this too. It’s unfortunate that the filmmakers have made this FBI agent look so inept.

During Pete and Erica’s phone conversation, Erica and Pete say enough incriminating things in the conversation that would expose their “secret” plans to people in the prison, which is crawling with corrupt corrections officers, and word would get back to Slewett, who’s working with The General. This phone conversation from prison would also then get Pete branded as a snitch, which could make the inmates turn against him too. But the filmmakers cover up this massive plot hole, which completely ruins whatever credibility this movie was trying to grasp.

And then “The Informer” just turns into complete garbage with a very unrealistic prison hostage scene where viewers are supposed to believe that the hostage taker, who is just one person, is able to hold off a small army of law enforcement officers (including a S.W.A.T team) that come to the rescue. The hostage scenes exist only so that the movie can have more violence, such as shootouts, an explosion and a gross-out scene where the hostage taker plunges a pair of scissors into someone’s ear.

Although Kinnaman’s role in the movie requires a lot of physical prowess, his character is the typical tough, brooding, misunderstood loner that we’ve seen so many times before in movies about ex-cons who become confidential informants. Pike’s Erica character is problematic because she’s supposed to be morally conflicted, but the reality is that this FBI agent is just incredibly incompetent. Owen’s Montgomery character is a stereotypical callous bureaucrat, while de Armas has yet another role as a “worried wife/love partner,” which is the type of character she has in a lot of her movies.

“The Informer” director Di Stefano and cinematographer Daniel Katz occasionally try to make the movie look a little artsier than most cheesy crime dramas of this ilk. For example, the scene with Sofia and Detective Grens in her aquarium shop is lit with the blue-ish glow of the aquariums, not by overhead room lights. It’s as if to convey that Sofia is untouched by all the grime and sleaze that has ensnared her husband. However, as much as this one scene was trying to show the beauty amongst all the corruption and violence, it’s still not enough to compensate for the shoddily written screenplay.

When the FBI or a big city’s police department (such as the NYPD) is trying to bust a large drug operation in an undercover sting, there are things that these professionals are trained not to do, so that they won’t blow their cover. And yet, the numskulls in “The Informer” do a lot of dumb things to blow their cover that no self-respecting law enforcement official or street-smart informant would do in an undercover investigation. “The Informer” is ultimately for people who just want to see some forgettable fight scenes and other mindless violence amid a lot of plot holes. This movie is not for people who want to see a compelling and well-written crime drama.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Informer” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on November 6, 2020. The movie was released in several countries in Europe and Asia in 2019.

Review: ‘Sergio’ (2020), starring Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas

April 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Senhorinha Gama Da Costa Lobo, Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas in “Sergio” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Sergio” (2020)

Directed by Greg Barker

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the world (Iraq, East Timor, Brazil, Cambodia, Indonesia and New York City), the dramatic film “Sergio” has a racially diverse cast (Latinos, white people and Asians) that tells the story of United Nations diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian who faced a life-or-death situation in 2003, when he was trapped in a bombed UN building in Baghdad.

Culture Clash: As a UN diplomat, de Mello dealt with many political and social conflicts, including the United States’ increasingly hostile relationship with Iraq after 9/11.

Culture Audience: “Sergio” will appeal mostly to people who like movies about international relations with a formulaic romantic storyline.

Ana de Armas and Wagner Moura in “Sergio” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

In 2010, HBO premiered the documentary “Sergio,” which was about Sergio Vieira de Mello, a United Nations diplomat from Brazil who was the victim of a deadly 2003 bombing in Baghdad, Iraq. Greg Barker directed the “Sergio” documentary (which was nominated for an Emmy), as well as this Netflix dramatic version of de Mello’s life events that led up to the bombing.

Craig Borten wrote the “Sergio” screenplay, which is adapted from Samantha Power’s book “Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World.” Several real-life facts were changed for the purpose of making the film more dramatic, so if viewers want a more accurate telling of the story,  then the documentary is the better choice. But if you want a fairly suspenseful drama with a romance at the center of the film, then this scripted “Sergio” film will be more to your liking, even if the movie isn’t likely to get any awards recognition.

The “Sergio” dramatic film begins with charismatic and intelligent Sergio (played by Wagner Moura) rehearsing a speech that he’s about to give as a welcome to new staffers at the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq. He’s a UN high commissioner for human rights, and he’s in Iraq for a four-month mission as an independent mediator between the U.S. and Iraq.

According to the movie, it was a mission that Sergio didn’t have to take, but he couldn’t say no the people who asked him to go to Baghad, including his close colleague Kofi Annan, who was Secretary-General of the United Nations at the time. In his short time in Baghdad, Sergio has even accomplished the difficult task of meeting with shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who resisted having meetings with many other leaders. 

As he tries to prevent U.S. -Iraqi relations from deteriorating, Sergio’s goal is to work with the  U.S. while gaining the trust of Iraqis to give them back full control of their sovereignty. This isn’t the news that U.S. Presidential Envoy Paul Breme (played by Bradley Whitford) wants to hear. Paul tells Sergio in a dismissive tone, “We have our own plans.” And later, Paul tells Sergio what the U.S. position will be about the next Iraqi elections: “I’ve decided there won’t be any elections until we’re ready.”

Unbeknownst to Paul, Sergio has compiled a dossier that includes disturbing reports that the U.S. military has committed several human-right violations while in Iraq. Sergio is about to go public with this information, by holding a press conference on August 19, 2003, when tragedy strikes: A bomb goes off at UN headquarters (housed in the Canal Hotel) in Baghdad, and the explosion completely destroys the building. Sergio and his deputy administrator Gil Loescher (played by Brían F. O’Byrne) get trapped in the rubble, and are pinned from the hips down.

The rest of the movie consists of going back and forth between the frantic rescue efforts and Sergio’s memory flashbacks to various points in his life as a diplomat. There are so many flashbacks in the movie, people who prefer stories to be told in chronological order will probably dislike the very non-linear structure of the film. Many of the flashbacks aren’t identified by the year, but observant viewers can tell how far back the flashbacks are by looking at the color of Sergio’s hair—the less gray the hair, the further the flashback.

A major part of the these flashbacks is showing how Sergio met and fell in love with UN economist Carolina Larriera (played by Ana de Armas) three years before the tragic bombing. In real life, Carolina (who is of Argentinian-Italian heritage) was part of the UN team in Baghdad at the time, and she desperately searched for Sergio after the explosion. That search is depicted in the movie to maximum dramatic effect. There are multiple scenes of guards preventing Carolina from entering the danger zone, and she gets more and more hysterical.

The movie portrays Sergio and Carolina’s romance as if it’s, well, straight out of a movie. He first notices her when they’re both stationed in East Timor, and they happen to regularly jog on the same path. They have a “meet cute” moment when Sergio is out jogging, he outruns his bodyguard Gaby (played by Clemens Schick), and he happens to see Carolina again. She starts up a conversation with Sergio, and they flirt a little. Carolina tells Sergio that she knows who he is, but she refuses to tell him her name when he asks.

The next time Sergio sees Carolina, it’s at a UN meeting, and she tells him her name. He says he already knows about her because he “did his homework.” Later, Carolina tells Sergio that she did her “homework” on him too, and she knows he’s married. However, based on the sparks between them and the way they look at each other, it’s only a matter of time before they get together. Their first kiss is a very “movie moment,” since it’s outside in the rain, as they fall into each other’s arms and kiss passionately while getting soaked by the rain.

When Sergio and Carolina met and began their love affair, he was legally married but estranged from his wife, who raised their two sons (who are in their late teens/early 20s when this story takes place) in Geneva while he traveled around the world for his job. A flashback to when the kids were underage shows that Sergio was such a workaholic who didn’t spend much time raising his children, that he didn’t even know that his younger son is allergic to shrimp. It’s an embarrassing ignorance that upsets his shrimp-allergic son when Sergio and his sons have a rare dinner together at the home of Sergio’s mother.

Other flashbacks include Sergio’s diplomatic work in helping East Timor gain independence from Portugal. He and his UN colleagues were appointed by Portugal as interim government officials. Instead of imposing restrictions that would alienate the East Timor rebels, Sergio went out of his way to welcome the participation of the natives fighting for independence, including rebel leader Xanana Gusmão. As Sergio says in the movie, “We were sent here as overlords, but I really hope we can leave as respected colleagues.” It was a controversial decision that some of Sergio’s UN colleagues, including Gil, did not approve of at first.

While in East Timor (in a scene that looks very fabricated for the movie), Sergio and Carolina meet local women who work at a yarn mill. Carolina introduces Sergio to a woman who’s had the tragedy of her sons and husband being killed. When Sergio asks her what she wants that will make her happy, she gives a poetic answer about wanting to have the ability to fly and fall from the sky like rain and remain in the place where she belongs. It’s a line that Sergio repeats when he’s at the presidential palace in Indonesia and he’s asked a similar question.

Another flashback is of Sergio, Gil and a female colleague being taken at gunpoint to Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s reign in the 1970s. It turns out Sergio and Ieng know each other from their days at the Sorbonne, so they get along just fine, and danger for the UN trio is averted. When Sergio and Gil reminisce about that experience several years later, Gil jokes, “I have a title for your autobiography: ‘War Criminals: My Friends.'”

Although Sergio is a well-respected diplomat, his workaholic ways have taken a toll on his marriage. Carolina, a sassy Harvard graduate who doesn’t want to be a trophy wife, confronts Sergio about making a commitment to her when Sergio tells Carolina that he wants every UN assignment of his to have a clear and defined plan. “I don’t like indefinite assignments,” says Sergio.

Carolina, who doesn’t want to be kept hanging in their relationship, essentially tells Sergio that she doesn’t want to be in a relationship with him unless he can also look at the relationship with a clear and defined plan. It’s a turning point when they realize that they want to be fully committed to each other.

There’s a lot to like about “Sergio,” especially for people who might not be familiar with the real people who inspired the movie. However, some of the scenes seem just a little too corny and contrived, especially those involving the Sergio/Carolina romance. Sergio’s unresolved marital status no doubt caused a lot of messiness and turmoil in real life, which is very much glossed over or ignored in the film. (It’s not mentioned in the movie, but Carolina’s claim that she was Sergio’s common-law wife led to a very protracted legal battle.)

Despite a hokey tone to the romance, Mauro and de Armas have convincing chemistry together, and they do a good job with the dialogue that they were given. In the film, Carolina says she’s doesn’t want to be an “appendage” to a powerful man, but she’s written in the movie as exactly that. If Carolina is supposed to be a brilliant economist, it’s not shown in the film, which mostly has her following Sergio’s lead or going into full-anxiety mode when she’s trying to find him in the post-bombing rubble. It’s really the same type of “worried wife or girlfriend” role that’s a cliché in movies that are set in war zones.

The film also took liberties with some facts (as many “inspired by a true story” movies do), by having Gil in the East Timor scenes. In real life, Gil was never in East Timor, as noted in the film’s epilogue. The epilogue also mentions that the way Gil was written in the movie (he’s portrayed as a very sarcastic skeptic) was as a composite of the real person and several members of Sergio’s A-Team.

The film’s editing has some notable moments, such as when the blast impact of the bombing on Sergio is juxtaposed with the blast of beach waves enjoyed by Sergio in his beloved Arpoador, an idyllic region of Brazil. However, the jumbled timeline in “Sergio” makes the film a lot sloppier than it needed to be. “Sergio” ultimately leaves the impression that it’s a trite portrayal of a richly layered and complicated life that is presented much better in the “Sergio” documentary.

Netflix premiered “Sergio” on April 17, 2020.

2020 Golden Globe Awards: presenters announced

January 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the organization the votes for the Golden Globe Awards) and Dick Clark Productions (which co-produces the Golden Globes telecast) have announced the presenters of the 2020 Golden Globe Awards ceremony, which takes place January 5 at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills California. NBC will have the U.S. telecast of the show, beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern Time/5 p.m. Pacific Time.

Here are the presenters in alphabetical order:

  • Tim Allen
  • Jennifer Aniston*
  • Christian Bale*
  • Antonio Banderas*
  • Jason Bateman
  • Annette Bening*
  • Cate Blanchett*
  • Matt Bomer
  • Pierce Brosnan
  • Glenn Close
  • Daniel Craig*
  • Ted Danson
  • Ana de Armas*
  • Leonardo DiCaprio*
  • Ansel Elgort
  • Chris Evans
  • Dakota Fanning
  • Will Ferrell
  • Lauren Graham
  • Tiffany Haddish
  • Kit Harington*
  • Salma Hayek
  • Scarlett Johansson*
  • Elton John*
  • Nick Jonas
  • Harvey Keitel
  • Zoe Kravitz
  • Jennifer Lopez*
  • Rami Malek*
  • Kate McKinnon
  • Helen Mirren
  • Jason Momoa
  • Gwyneth Paltrow
  • Amy Poehler
  • Brad Pitt*
  • Da’Vine Joy Randolph
  • Margot Robbie*
  • Paul Rudd*
  • Wesley Snipes
  • Octavia Spencer
  • Bernie Taupin*
  • Charlize Theron*
  • Sofia Vergara
  • Kerry Washington
  • Naomi Watts
  • Rachel Weisz
  • Reese Witherspoon*

*2020 Golden Globe Awards nominee

Ricky Gervais is hosting the show. Tom Hanks will be receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award for career achievement, while Ellen DeGeneres will be getting the Carol Burnett Award, which is given to people who have excelled in comedy. The Carol Burnett Award debuted at the Golden Globes in 2019, and Burnett was the first recipient of the prize. Dylan and Paris Brosnan (sons of Pierce Brosnan) will serve as the 2020 Golden Globe Ambassadors.

Click here for a complete list of nominations for the 2020 Golden Globe Awards.

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