This month’s movie reviews of Blonde, Dead for a Dollar and Amsterdam.
I had been looking forward to seeing Blonde, partly because of Marilyn Monroe, the film’s ostensible subject, but also because of the lead, Ana de Armas, whose work I enjoyed in Knives Out and No Time to Die (she should have had more screen time there, but that’s another story). I will say that de Armas does not disappoint as Marilyn, at least in terms of how the creators have envisioned her: she has the look, the manner, the vulnerability, and the intelligence. If she doesn’t sing her own songs (as the real Marilyn had done), at least she provides glimpses of the star power that Marilyn exhibited. No, my problem with the film is in its conception of Marilyn as purely a complacent victim of her agents, her mother, her absent father, and the lovers/husbands that blight her emotional landscape. (The several exchanges with her talking womb do not help matters, neither as entertainment nor as any avenue towards emotional insight.) And even then, this depiction of her as the victim is inconsistent within the scope of the film; early on the film’s Marilyn is quite assertive about seeking equal pay with Jane Russell, her Gentlemen Prefer Blondes co-star, and later still, she defies (off-screen) husband Joe DiMaggio’s demand that she drop out of The Seven Year Itch. Andrew Dominick (writer, director) based his film on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, and while it is a watchable film with good performances from de Armas, Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody (as spouses DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, respectively), it is also profoundly disappointing. Blonde might have an insightful moment or two but not enough to compensate for all the half-truths and fabrications that purport to explain the important choices in Monroe’s life. It might have been better to have fictionalized the whole thing (including names), lest anyone think this had any relation to the facts.
Much more entertaining is Dead for a Dollar, a Western in the classic style written and directed by Walter Hill. In fact, once you embrace the novelty of seeing Christoph Waltz as a seasoned albeit compassionate and moral bounty hunter, there is plenty of enjoyment to be had. For Hill has created an homage to the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher westerns of the 1950s, complete with stalwart hero (Waltz), a sidekick (Warren Burke), garrulous, engaging and strangely sympathetic bad guy (Willem DeFoe in fine form, taking every scene he’s in), a woman in trouble (a subdued and effective Rachel Brosnahan), the real villains (led by Benjamin Bratt and Hamish Linklater), and the “guy in the middle,” a deserter whom Brosnahan has taken up with (Brandon Scott). The pacing is good (at 105 minutes, it’s long for a Boetticher film but refreshingly compact as far as modern films), the action intense and well-choreographed (and not graphic), and the performers bring out all the nuances in Hill’s spare but witty script. Waltz is an inspired choice for the lead role; casting someone with established Western chops (like a Kevin Costner) would leave you no doubt where the story is heading, but with Waltz, the viewer is not necessarily 100% certain…and is therefore open to surprises. Worth seeing, especially on a big screen.
I don’t know why some critics have been unfriendly to David O. Russell’s Amsterdam. Far from being overly wacky and a whirlwind of unrelated ideas, it’s actually a pretty coherent and likable comedy-drama with a hint of mystery (though if there is a flaw, I figured who the evil mastermind was as soon as I saw the actor). The film takes a real-life conspiracy from the 1930s as a springboard for a film that has something to say about friendship, race relations, the shameful treatment of the veterans, and the ruthlessness of those in power (financial, military or otherwise) that would seek to subvert or overturn democracy (gee, sounds kind of timely). At the center are three disparate individuals who become friends while serving on the battlefield during World War I: Christian Bale’s Park Avenue doctor, John David Washington’s war veteran, and Margot Robbie’s enigmatic nurse. After the war, the three become inseparable while staying in Amsterdam, a place that allows the characters to live their dreams and be free of America’s political/social/cultural strife. Life interferes though, and fourteen years after the war, the three are reunited, either having come closer to achieving their dreams, or falling prey to disillusionment and manipulation. That this reunion comes about because of a conspiracy and a murder moves the plot along, but what makes this movie work for me are the fine performances at the center; one cares about their friendship and their fate. Numerous characters (Michael Shannon and Mike Meyers as shadowy operatives, Rami Malek’s doctor, Robert de Niro’s career officer) also move the action along and there are some funny and provocative moments along the way. Amsterdam is an intelligent and accessible entertainment that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Give it a shot.