Adrien Brody

Blonde

03/10/22

Netflix

Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, based on a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, is an art film with a capital ‘A’. Given a running time close to three hours and presented in a whole variety of aspect ratios, it purports to be the inside story of Norma Jeane Baker – or Marilyn Monroe, as she’s better known. One overriding message comes through loud and clear: if there were any joyful moments in the star’s life, they were few and far between. This is the tale of a young woman who is repeatedly betrayed and brutalised by just about everybody she comes into contact with.

We first encounter her as a little girl (Lily Fisher), living with her abusive, disturbed mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), who nearly ends both their lives by driving headlong into the midst of a bush fire. As an opening, it’s powerful and arresting – but from this point, the story takes a seismic jump through time, where we discover Norma/Marilyn (Ana de Armas) chasing roles in Hollywood, largely by allowing herself to be thrown down onto the casting couch and horribly abused by unnamed ‘producers’. The problem here is that Dominik, who also wrote the screenplay, seems to assume that everybody watching is going to be so well versed in Monroe’s career that we’ll instinctively know who’s who. It’s not always easy to follow and, for those not in the know, it’s hard work.

The overall theme here is about father issues. From the beginning, Norma Jeane’s Mother shows her photographs of a mysterious man who, she claims, is her father, once a big star in Hollywood movies. Norma Jeane consequently spends most of her life searching for him, even calling her various partners ‘Daddy’. The story leaps back and forth in time and we’re given insights into her doomed marriage to Joe Di Maggio (or ‘Ex-Athlete’, as Bobby Cannavale’s character is billed) and her equally ill-fated relationship with ‘The Playwright’ (Adrien Brody, looking the dead spit of Arthur Miller).

This is hardly a fun-filled ride. We see a harrowing abortion scene, which definitely feels pitched as an anti-abortion polemic, and there’s an equally horrible account of the miscarriage Monroe suffers while married to Arthur Miller. A brief and sordid encounter between Monroe and ‘The President’ (Caspar Philipson) is about as repugnant a sex scene as I’ve ever witnessed.

As if in an attempt to lighten the mix, there are accomplished recreations of several of Monroe’s most iconic film roles, but the swings in tone are extreme and it feels suspiciously like being alternately sprinkled with sugar and dragged through a cess pit.

Ana de Armass offers an accomplished performance in the lead role, inhabiting Monroe’s manic persona with great skill – but Blonde feels increasingly like a big bumper pack of fireworks, occasionally shooting off fabulous cinematic dazzlers but, more often than not, offering a selection of damp squibs. What’s more, the film would benefit I think, from a more stringent edit, cutting out those slower sections where the story is allowed to drag.

It’s worth seeing, but be warned – it’s not the straightforward biopic that you might expect.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

See How They Run

14/09/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

The recent success of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out seems to have rekindled a cinematic interest in whodunits. Johnson’s sequel, Glass Onion, is due out soon (on Netflix) but, meanwhile, on the big screen there’s See How They Run, a lighthearted spin on the genre, directed by Tom George (previously best known for TV’s This Country) and written by Mark Chappell.

It’s 1953 and Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is already approaching its one hundredth performance. Moves are afoot to turn it into a motion picture, spearheaded by odious American screenwriter Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody) who wants the chosen screenwriter, Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), to amp up the sex and violence to make it more screen-worthy. Okay, so there is a clause in the play’s contract, stating that it can never make the transition into film until its theatrical run has ended… but that won’t be long, surely?

Kopernick quickly winds up dead (don’t worry, this is in no way a spoiler) and suspicion initially falls on Cocker-Norris. But, as rumpled, hard-drinking Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) soon begins to discover, there are lots of people in the cast and crew who have reasons to bear a grudge – and anyway, he has his hands pretty full with his over-eager assistant, Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).

See How They Run is a tremendously likeable film, virtually stuffed to the gills with big-name actors having a ball in small roles, many of them based on real life characters. Harris Dickinson offers a nicely judged Richard Attenborough (who starred in The Mousetrap‘s original production) and Pearl Chanda is excellent too as his wife and co-star, Sheila Sim. Rockwell does a suitably world-weary turn as Stoppard, but for my money it’s Ronan who really makes this fly, creating an absolutely adorable character, determined to make her mark in a world that has until now been entirely dominated by men. Plaudits should also go to comedian Tim Key, who does a brilliant job of embodying a loathsome police commissioner.

As you might expect, the script is as meta as you like, with plenty of in-jokes and sly references for theatrical fans to pick up on – but, more importantly perhaps, this is funny throughout, with some perfectly timed pratfalls thrown in for good measure. While it’s hardly destined to linger for long in a viewer’s mind, it’s nonetheless a very pleasant way to spend a well-paced hour and thirty-eight minutes.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The French Dispatch

23/10/21

Cameo, Edinburgh

The word ‘quirky’ could almost have been invented for Wes Anderson. Since his breakthrough with Bottle Rocket in 1996, the director has relentlessly followed the path less travelled. Along the way, he’s dallied with stop-frame animation and, in his live-action features, has developed a visual style used by nobody else in the business. Take off a blindfold in a movie theatre and watch ten seconds of any one of his films and, chances are, you’ll recognise his style instantly.

Now here’s the much-delayed The French Dispatch, a portmanteau made up of three short films, linked by a framing device. It probably has a valid claim for being the most Wes Anderson-like film yet as it employs all of the tics and, yes, quirks we associate with him: those bizarre doll house vistas; jarring cuts from colour to monochrome; weird frozen tableaux of action scenes – and characters that are as eccentric as they are amusing. And, of course, there’s also the WA repertory company, a seemingly endless supply of big-name actors, who seem perfectly happy to put their famous mugs in front of the camera, even if they’ve not actually been given much to do.

We begin at the offices of the titular publication, a New Yorker-style literary magazine that is itself an offshoot off a newspaper in Kansas, yet somehow has its headquarters at the top of a ramshackle building in the sleepy French town of Ennui-Sur-Blasé. It’s from here that editor Arthur Howitzer Jnr (Bill Murray) sends his various critics around the country to seek out and document stories of interest – and we are subsequently treated to three of them, all set in the 1960s.

First up we have the tale of convicted murderer, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), who, inspired by his love for prison warden – and sometime model – Simone (Lea Seydoux), decides to express his love, by creating works of modern art in tribute to her. He inadvertently becomes a cause celebre. Next there’s the story of journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) and her dalliance with dashing young revolutionary, Zefferelli (Timothée Chalamet), whose rebellion against authority is played out as a literal game of chess. Finally, there’s the story of writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), assigned to write a piece about celebrated prison chef, Nescafier (Steve Park), only to find himself caught up in a kidnapping drama involving the adopted son of the prison’s Commisaire (Mathieu Almaric).

The stories are dazzlingly told and the main theme here seems to be one of affection for an age that’s largely gone – a yearning for old-school journalism, when editors cared more about the writing than the money it might generate. Anderson – who co-wrote the story – also has much scorn to heap on the world of art, mocking the ways in which commerce waits greedily in the wings to get its hooks into the next big thing, qualities evidenced by Adrien Brody’s ruthless art dealer, Julien Cadazio. There’s some evident homaging going on here too. The second piece eerily captures the look of French new wave cinema – and did I imagine that little salute to The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling?

I have to say that I admire The French Dispatch enormously, rather than love it. There’s always an element of grandstanding about Anderson’s work, a celebration of his own uniqueness that can sometimes feel a little too arch – and the parade of characters unleashed here are essentially caricatures rather than people I can believe in. Perhaps that’s entirely the point, but it’s a quality that can polarise audiences.

Suffice to say, if you’re a fan of the director, you certainly won’t be disappointed by what’s on offer here. This is Wes Anderson turned up all the way up to 11. And, in the unlikely event that it’s the first of his films you’ve seen, then enjoy the trip.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney