Thursday, September 22, 2022

Film Reviews: How Women Artists Are Treated Is the Subject of Both “Blonde” and “The African Desperate”

Blonde (c) Netflix

In Cinemas (Paris Theater in NYC) 
To stream on Netflix on Friday, September 30 

Unlike the celebrities and Instagram influencers of today, actress Marilyn Monroe had almost no control over her own image since it was mostly controlled by the movie studio and the paparazzi/gossip columns of the time. Unfortunately, Monroe is still being exploited, this time in “Blonde” in which director Andrew Dominik’s idea for the film, loosely based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, is to use the many iconic images of her life and delve into the story leading up to or the aftermath of each photo being taken. I haven’t read the book, but some of the most shocking moments on screen are Oates’ creation, including a rather nasty encounter with John F. Kennedy that probably gives the movie its NC-17 rating. A lot of Monroe’s behavior may stem from her obsession with who her biological father is, since she gets a lot of conflicting stories from her mentally unstable mother (Julianne Nicholson).

Blonde (c) Matt Kennedy, Netflix

Things really get unpleasant in Dominik’s hands once adult Marilyn (Ana de Armis) starts losing control of her life, either by the movie studios or the men in her life, which include an early throuple with heirs of Hollywood royalty, Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), as well as marriages to Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). Yes, you anticipate the depictions of sexual degradation, the descent into drug abuse and her mental instability, but the film’s most tasteless obsession is with her many unborn children who talk to her from the uterus (which we get to see in very graphic terms). None of the blame can put on de Armis, who does an incredible job with her recreation of Monroe’s most memorable looks, but she can’t seem to find the tortured actress’s inner-life, especially with this scattershot, non-sympathetic storytelling. At the red-carpet premiere of “Some Like It Hot,” for example, Dominik’s camera pans over the throng of press trying to get Monroe’s attention for a photo (with the camera bulbs sounding like gunshots) – it lingers on this one man whose mouth is so humongous, almost to the point of possibly being CGI. There are so many outrageous moments in “Blonde” that it numbed me from feeling anything during the film’s excruciating 166 minutes running time, but that mouth, which granted is an obvious “Hollywood eating its stars” metaphor, may be the scariest thing on screen. 

The African Desperate (c) MUBI

The African Desperate 
In Cinemas 

L.A. visual artist Martine Syms has directed and co-written her first film, “The African Desperate,” which feels very personal as her main character, Palace (Diamond Stingily), is finishing up her MFA art dissertation at an upstate New York college that is never named, but it was filmed at Bard, where Syms got her MFA. Palace, with her dyed bright orange hair, attends one last party with her mostly white frenemy classmates before going home to Chicago. This is a very free-flowing narrative, with Palace trying unsuccessfully to pack while having run-ins with a colorful set of students, teachers and a possible love interest. At the party, which feels like a more palatable, but still chaotic version of Gasper Noe’s “Climax,” Palace tries a lot of new drugs (the only really unbelievable element of the film is that Palace spent her whole graduate school time with this group, and only on her last day does she try K and mushrooms?) as she dazedly DJs the party, tries to find a charger for her Android as well as flirt one last time with Ezra (Aaron Bobrow), who has been giving her mixed messages. 

The African Desperate (c) MUBI

The movie is a barrage of visual tricks and imagery that livens the story up, including a casual scene that takes place in front of four TV screens showing men masturbating. While I appreciate the happenstance nature of the narrative, Palace is still very much a cipher at the beginning as she is at the end, which takes nothing away from Stingily’s both endearing and infuriating go-for-broke performance. Racism, which hovers over the film as passive-aggressive jabs here and there, is tackled artistically in an effective montage towards the end. The title comes from a slip of the tongue by Palace (she wanted to say African diaspora) when describing her art. There is nothing desperate in Sym’s always stimulating and exciting feature film debut.

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