Atomic Blonde

Release: Friday, July 28, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Kurt Johnstad

Directed by: David Leitch

Perhaps the only thing you really need to know about Atomic Blonde is that it bears the insignia of one David Leitch, a certifiable jack-of-all-trades whose résumé includes numerous actor, producer and assistant director credits. His directorial experience unofficially includes a joint effort with Chad Stahelski on 2014’s John Wick and will soon include (officially) Deadpool 2. Leitch’s stunt work can be found in everything from BASEketball to Blade; Seabiscuit to The Matrix: Revolutions. But it is his reputation behind the scenes as a stunt coordinator that most directly informs his gleefully violent send-up of the spy genre.

Despite the main objective being to create something that breaks from the “stuffy atmosphere” typically associated with films of its ilk, Leitch’s directorial debut isn’t a true original. This is an adaptation of the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnston with artwork by Sam Hart. With the fall of the Berlin Wall imminent, it imagines a fictional narrative involving a lethal MI6 agent named Lorraine Broughton who is dispatched to Berlin to retrieve a dossier containing the identities of suspected double-agents trying to get across the border into the West. While there she’s also to find the person responsible for the murder of a fellow agent. Even as a neutral third-party, Broughton soon discovers her trip to Germany won’t be simple when you can’t distinguish enemy from ally.

In a role that recalls her intensity and grit in Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron stars as the enigmatic blonde, a survivor of many things unexplained at the start of the film. Her curvature emerges from a tomb of ice, battered and bruised to a degree that pretty much equates her to a modern superheroine. Hair matted to her neck and shoulders, eyes bloodshot, she swigs vodka to take the edge off. It’s an absorbing and moody opening that immediately draws us into the world of a hardened spy. Enquiring minds want to know: what chain of events have unfolded to get us here?

The gory details of a mission gone bad are recounted in a flashback structured through an interrogation taking place in the present day — a scene to which we frequently cut throughout. The technique underscores the rampant paranoia associated with the era. After all, who’s to say Broughton herself can really be trusted? Her handlers, an MI6 executive (Toby Jones) and a CIA agent who looks a lot like John Goodman, seem to humor her rather than accept as gospel what she says about her experience “working with” Berlin station chief David Percival (another great loose-cannon performance from James McAvoy). When some of that testimony proves potentially embarrassing, protocol requires the suits to bring out the broom as well as the rug.

The ass-kickery of Atomic Blonde may be steeped in familiar themes, but through sheer force of style Leitch manages to hack-and-slash his own path through the crowded genre of Cold War-set spy thrillers. It’s a breathless display of close-quarters combat in which sustained sequences of bone-crunching action are the movie and everything in between is just a bonus. The scene in the stairwell is unbelievable; something that would make Jet Li proud. Think John Wick turned espionage thriller: replace its lo-carb Neo with a female version of James Bond who makes Daniel Craig look like David Niven.

Proving a crucial component to the experience is a soundtrack rife with killer ’80s tunes, some original, others covered by contemporary artists. Everything from David Bowie collaborating with Queen (‘Under Pressure’ has particularly good timing) to Depeche Mode, Led Zeppelin to German punk group AuSSchlag is sampled, with so many numbers contributing to the overall tone and pace of the film that it becomes sort of impractical to break it all down. (So here’s this as a reference — be wary of spoilers if you haven’t yet seen the film.)

Sure, Atomic Blonde has room for improvement. The direction is solid yet there’s still something nervous about it. There’s a slightly nagging pacing issue stemming from the way the chronicle is deliberately, almost self-consciously constructed. Occasionally the flashiness is a little too flashy. Other times it’s borderline pandering. Broughton’s whirlwind romance with an attractive but naïve French agent (Sofia Boutella) comes out of left field. At best the sudden blossoming of an intimate lesbian relationship identifies a certain joie de vivre in a film that otherwise lacks it. At worst, such tenderness strikes you as out of character. Very, very out of character. Still, I’m not sure what harm introducing a little warmth into a cold world, a cold movie really does, other than veer dangerously close to the very cliches its star proudly claims her latest role steers well clear of.

You don’t really come away with the impression that you’ve been educated as much as you feel like you’ve endured as many heavy blows and dodged as many bullets as the protagonist. This is a firecracker of an action thriller, though I’m left wondering if maybe the coupon would only be good for a one-time viewing. In fairness, Leitch cautions the viewer against taking things too seriously with an opening title card that suggests it might actually be better to view the movie as an “alternate reality” rather than something extracted from history.

The more I think about it, the only thing you really need to know about Atomic Blonde is just how much of a badass Charlize Theron is. She is a force of nature, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her male contemporaries. Her strong work, combined with the stylistic vision of David Leitch, is the recipe for one of the most violent female-led action films I have ever seen and one of the most purely entertaining.

Recommendation: Gritty, violent, with a female touch. More like a female frikkin’ wallop. This film festival-pleasing, pulpy genre-tweaker is a strong contender for best female-starring vehicle in all of 2017. The specifics of the narrative don’t really matter when an actor is just so in control of their craft. One of my favorite performances from Charlize Theron. If you thought she was a cold-hearted killer in Fate of the Furious, wait until you get a load of the Atomic Blonde. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Don’t shoot! I’ve got your shoe!” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Fate of the Furious

Release: Friday, April 14, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Morgan

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

Sometimes I find myself asking how we have managed to get to the point where women and children are being threatened by cyber terrorists in a franchise built around car racing. I find myself wondering if things have gotten a little too out-of-hand. Of course, with each passing installment it has become increasingly clear this isn’t car porn anymore. Sadly, the narrative can no longer concern itself with the thawing of a once bitter rivalry between a street racer and an undercover cop either.

Out of necessity The Fast and the Furious have had to evolve, and though they have definitely become less furious they haven’t become any less fun to watch as each new chapter has placed them in some situation more ridiculously physics-defying than the last. And The Fate of the Furious is absolutely the most far-fetched demonstration of their newfound collective purpose yet. I suppose how we have arrived here isn’t that much of a mystery. They say formulaic writing can only get you so far, but it actually has netted Universal at least eight films and well over $5 billion.

The — let’s call it natural, even though that’s stretching the term — evolution of the family and Dom Toretto in particular finds us wading into legitimately dramatic territory in The Fate of the Furious. F. Gary Gray’s first time behind the wheel steers the story in an altogether more somber direction, pitting the star with a type of gasoline as a last name against his loyal compadres after being manipulated by cunning cyber terrorist Cipher, played with true menace by Charlize Theron.

For better and for worse, Chris Morgan’s screenplay remains as knowingly outrageous (and clunky) as those he has penned before. That this ragtag bunch of car enthusiasts could be the difference between World War III happening or not happening is pushing it, even for this franchise. Though Dom’s relatively unique trajectory is going to generate most of the post-viewing discussion, the specifics of the plot are as reliant as ever upon his crew’s mutually beneficial relationship with Kurt Russell‘s government agent Mr. Nobody. (And on that note, can someone please enlighten me as to why we needed Scott Eastwood’s Little Nobody? Also: how someone born of Eastwood blood can be so bad at acting.)

Fate succeeds in cementing its familial themes by way of finding redemption for characters hitherto on the periphery. In the wake of Dom’s theft of an EMP device at the behest of Cipher, Special Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) finds himself having to set aside past differences with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) as they work to take down a common enemy. After what happened to his brother, Deckard is eager to settle the score, even if that means working alongside a team who had once pooled their resources into eliminating him.

Gray’s film finds plenty of surprises along the way, like Dame Helen Mirren making a brief appearance as matriarch Magdalene Shaw, clad in leather jacket and brass knuckles (well, those are more or less implied). The character may be more plot device than person but Mirren’s quietly simmering intensity doesn’t allow her to be quite as dispensable as the script would like her to be. There’s also something vaguely amusing about seeing an actor of her stature in a film like this. (Ditto that the first time Kurt Russell appeared.)

With the integration of more Shaw’s into the narrative, you can think of Fate as one big, bullet-riddled family reunion. With nuclear submarines and Game of Thrones-sized enemies thrown in for good measure. Given the situation, you would think forgiveness would be a particularly high virtue to which these characters aspire, especially in a movie where the bonds of family are being “tested as never before.” It’s disappointing that that aspect is more convincingly framed through Hobbs’ and Deckard’s banter than it is through the evolution of Dom and Letty’s relationship.

While it’s heartwarming to see former enemies arrive at a place of mutual respect — after all, maturity is one of those tenets this multi-billion-dollar franchise has been built on — the lack of weight attached to the final, obligatorily dinner-table-set scene proves a major step backward for a film that otherwise was able to convince me that this was indeed the most serious situation our exonerated heroes have yet faced.

Recommendation: The Fate of the Furious offers more of the same. A lot more. Two-plus-hours more. In the absence of Paul Walker, it’s a testament to the comfort we have with the others that not much feels “different,” although certainly his absence is noted. Fate succeeds far more in elevating the action stakes than the emotional ones. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “. . .it’s neon orange. The International Space Station will see it coming.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Kubo and the Two Strings

'Kubo and the Two Strings' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 19, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Marc Haimes; Chris Butler; Shannon Tindle

Directed by: Travis Knight

Kudos to Kubo for being a wee bit different. I mean, generally speaking his story isn’t one you haven’t seen before — unless of course you’ve had since your diaper days an elaborate scheme for avoiding all things Disney for the rest of your life, which just seems . . . excessive. The latest from Laika Entertainment does, however, carry with it an air of sophistication and maturity absent in many of its competitors’ products.

Travis Knight, in his directorial debut, paints an emotionally resonant portrait of a family plagued by wickedness in ancient Japan, a family represented by the young Kubo (Art Parkinson) and his mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron) who we see at the beginning of the film barely escaping with their lives from an unseen confrontation with her evil Sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara) and Kubo’s grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who took one of Kubo’s eyes in an attempt to blind him to the world, a punishment that probably carries   with it some sort of metaphorical meaning that I just can’t be bothered to delve into here (either that, or it’s just . . . I guess, glaringly obvious).

Anyhoo, Kubo now lives in a cave atop a big mountain just outside a village, to which he travels daily to put on shows for the locals. He tells tales of a brave samurai who has to defend himself against monsters, stories based on what he has heard from his mother about his missing father Hanzo, a legendary warrior. Kubo attracts large crowds with his showmanship, his ability to manipulate colored pieces of paper into ornate origami figures with his shamisen (a three-string guitar) as impressive as it is perplexing. If only he could just come up with a conclusion to the tale. Each evening he returns to the cave where his mother, who has fallen into a trance-like state, awaits. Most of the time she remains frozen in place like a statue. When she does speak she reminds her son to never stay out after dark as that is when her wicked Sisters and other evil spirits cast by the Moon King prowl, awaiting the chance to take Kubo’s other eye.

One evening Kubo attends an Obon ceremony, a Buddhist ritual in which the living are able to communicate with and celebrate the spirits of their deceased loved ones. Observed for over 500 years, it has evolved into a kind of family reunion tradition. In a display of visual grandeur that rivals anything Pixar has created in its 17-film history, we watch the screen burst into plumes of orange, red and yellow, the spirits rising from glowing lanterns to greet a sky filled with stars. It’s got my vote as one of the most spectacular scenes in any movie this year. A moment of pure wonderment swiftly transitions into one of terror as day turns to night and, sure enough, Kubo is confronted by those vicious aunts of his, determined to permanently blind him. Again, both literally and metaphorically. Mother intervenes, imbuing her son with some of her own magical power before making the film’s obvious Big Sacrifice.

The narrative promptly shifts gears and finds us deep into a blizzard, waking up next to a living version of his monkey trinket, also voiced by Theron. The two form an awkward, tough-love kind of bond and soon they set out across the desolate landscape, Kubo in search of three pieces of armor that will protect him against the evil spirits. They’re led by “Little Hanzo,” an origami man modeled after his father. Little Hanzo leads them to Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a warrior who was cursed into taking the form of an insect and who has no memory of his past. He learns quickly Kubo is actually the son of his master which obliges him to help Kubo in his quest to defeat evil.

Only after this shift does it become obvious how deliberately Knight has been setting up the story proper. We’re halfway into the movie before what we’ve actually come for gets underway. (The argument could be made the incredible blend of stop-motion animation with creative applications of magic, like Kubo’s origami ship and origami birds, justifies the price of admission.) At the heart of the film lies the familial conflict, a fairly standard clash of good and evil that forces a frightened but resourceful youngster into making big decisions and taking on forces much greater than himself. Guiding him along the way are his newfound friends, friends that ultimately prove they have much more to offer Kubo than moral support.

It takes time for all the pieces to fall into place. Significant world-building must happen before we get into the nitty gritty. It’s not just the elaborate staging of the saga that almost feels obsessive. If the thematic elements Kubo trades in are steeped in the beauty and mythology of Japanese tradition, artistic expression is driven by the pursuit of perfection. The level of detail in the visual aesthetic evokes the pride and passion of creators over at the prestigious Studio Ghibli. Such comparisons might seem extreme, but they’re not without caveats. Kubo is so intensely visual it’s as though nothing else matters.

Some things certainly do seem to matter more to the filmmakers than others as we work our way through this dark and dangerous journey. Not all aspects are created equal; the villains feel like a significant comedown from the stratospheric heights reached by Laika’s graphic artists. Reputable thespians like Mara and Fiennes don’t quite sell the evil convincingly. Even still, and despite a climactic showdown between Kubo and the Moon King ending the film on a whimper rather than a bang, this is still a story well worth investing time in, especially with your little ones. In the end though, you’ll probably leave the theater just like them: all googoo-gaga over some of the most sumptuous visuals you have ever seen.

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Recommendation: Fairly heavy for a children’s movie as death lurks around every corner and reincarnation manifests as a prominent theme, but undeniably a quality experience for the whole family to share in, Kubo and the Two Strings rises above a few notable flaws thanks to an incredible animated style that gives rich texture to its culturally significant roots. The story falters towards the end but apparently never enough to divert attention to the fact this movie really should have featured Japanese dialogue if it was going for the whole ‘authenticity’ thing. Names like McConaughey, Theron, Fiennes and Mara actually become both enticing and distracting. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “I encourage you not to die.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.cartoonbrew.com

Mad Max: Fury Road

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Release: Friday, May 15, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: George Miller; Brendan McCarthy; Nico Lathouris

Directed by: George Miller

For a lesser population, what a lovely day it is indeed, a day in which a franchise is reborn. To anyone else not attuned to what was once a legitimate excuse for Mel Gibson going crazy, Mad Max: Fury Road feels like what a Michael Bay action sequence wants to be when it grows up.

Before dealing with the flack I’m going to inevitably receive for that comparison, may I remind you that Bay, despite himself now, has a knack for building enthusiastic, explosive entertainment. Whereas the aforementioned splurges on expense, George Miller ingeniously . . . well, he splurges too actually. Except here a $150 million budget is appropriated toward some mind-blowingly technical stunt work that is liable to leave most breathless, begging for more.

Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is seen at the film’s deceptively quiet open recounting his days of hardship via a gruff narrative, briefly reflecting upon a troubled past before being snapped up by a passing horde of baddies, undoubtedly the inspiration for some of this year’s most popular Halloween costumes. Behold, the War Boys. He is taken to a strange and desperate civilization known as the Citadel, a relative oasis presided over by the tyrannical King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who keeps most of the communal water and greenery to himself and his minions.

Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, a shaven-headed, fearless amputee with a face covered in soot, finally has had enough of living in such conditions. She goes rogue, fleeing the Citadel in Joe’s ‘War Rig’ and down an indistinct but narratively significant path of sorts, bound for a better way of life. On board the Rig are Joe’s Five Wives — a collection of beauty that recalls Bay’s casting sensibilities. But Bay doesn’t go for talent, really. He just stops at ‘good-looking.’

Perhaps that’s the only thing Joe cares for as well. Enraged by the knowledge of their escape, he sicks the War Boys on the Rig, igniting a thunderous and violent chase across remote desert landscapes and into a sand storm that makes The Perfect Storm look like a gust of wind. Valleys become death gauntlets, their outer limits patrolled by bikers who are expecting a shipment of gasoline be delivered by Furiosa in exchange for her safe passage through. As sure as a Michael Bay car chase, more disaster awaits there.

Miller and Bay are both adrenaline junkies — the former addicted to cartoonish madness; the latter to closing the gap between CGI spectacle and cinema-related migraine. One of these addictions is healthier (at the very least, artsier) than the other. But the constant raucous atmosphere can be overwhelming for newcomers to this depraved world of half-dead humans clinging to life however they can. For a good portion of this ride Max is used as a blood bag to nurse Nux (Nicholas Hoult) back to . . . uh, health. And one of the Five Wives is very pregnant. This isn’t a thinking man’s movie, but if there’s one thing Fury Road is adept at other than delivering non-stop thrills, it’s showing humanity’s will to endure some crazy shit.

With Hardy replacing Gibson in the titular role, one that strangely bears less significance when put beside an iconic Charlize Theron, Fury Road threatens to abandon its cult classic status, exploding into potential box-office behemoth territory. Despite an outrageous, gothic dress code this costume design will likely remain one of the hottest topics of the summer. Maybe all year.

Apparently The Avengers: Age of Ultron is still playing in some theaters. Well, now there’s a new kid on the block and his name is Mad Max Absolutely Ridiculous. Decorated in war paint, yelling at the top of his lungs he demands you know his name. After spending two hours with him you aren’t likely to forget it. Perhaps that’s the most significant distinction between these auteurs of the action spectacular.

When you realize you left the GPS at home . . .

When you realize you left the GPS at home . . .

4-0Recommendation: Decidedly one-note when it comes to plot, Mad Max: Fury Road is still a unique experience — brutal and relentless action combined with beautiful visuals and a gung-ho spirit that fails to dwindle. Having seen the originals isn’t a necessity but I’d imagine it would help round out Max’s character more. Action junkies and fans of George Miller’s brand of filmmaking must see this movie. It’s a curious thing, too: there are two films coming out later this year (one this summer) with as much potential to deliver the goods and both indisputably appealing to larger audiences, but I wonder if these films will be as successful in recruiting new fans as Miller’s latest has been.

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “Hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.”

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Photo credits: http://www.southfloridafilmmaker.com; http://www.imdb.com 

A Million Ways to Die in the West

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Released: Friday, May 30, 2014

[Theater]

Oh, Seth. Seth, Seth, Seth, Seth, Seth. . . . .

Seth MacFarlane. It’s a name a great many are likely tiring of by now, maybe for good reason, maybe for ones less so. Judge as you will, but I’ve tried to make a case for the guy for awhile. I’m on my last legs.

For me it’s never been an issue how stupid the comedy has been. . .and we have gone to some fairly asinine places. One need look no further than Family Guy‘s running joke about Peter and how whenever he trips and scuffs his knee he whines like a baby for about two solid minutes of their precious air time. Or beyond the show’s myriad other deliciously tasteless jokes that have offended every culture from here to Hanoi.

The guy loves what he does and the passion effloresces in virtually everything his pervy hands have touched. That it takes a brain running on nothing but gasoline and guano to understand most of the humor MacFarlane now barricades behind him, arms folded with just the yuppiest of grins plastered on his face, well that’s just no surprise. Family Guy et al aren’t particularly high-brow concepts, and that’s quite alright with me. I have laughed, and I have laughed hard.

I have little patience for lazy filmmaking, though. It’s also a phenomenon that makes even less sense. Of all qualities a director, producer, writer and star (and in this case, MacFarlane is all of these things) can possess when shouldered with the responsibility of producing content for an audience that he’s been comfortable with for years producing content for, the last thing one thinks of is apathy. A Million Ways to Die in the West is a sham of an effort from an entertainer who really ought to know better. Consequently, I can only shake my head and crap myself awkwardly. (Actually, I don’t know why I did the second thing, or why I owned up to it. Whatever. It’s too late now.)

Seth, where’s the motivation, man?

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“Nah, it’s alright. We’ll get the title right next time this movie comes through.”

Recycled gags and scatological humor run amok out here in the wild west, a theme that has stuck with the creator of Ted like a wet turd on velcro. This is the story of a lowly sheepherder, Albert Stark (MacFarlane), who eventually comes into his own as a proud, confident and respected member of the small dustbowl community of Old Stump.

Well, he doesn’t exactly come into his own by accident. No. That’s actually thanks to the sudden appearance of a mysterious woman named Anna (Charlize Theron) who rides into town one day with a band of baddies who are seeking gold deposits in the area and are led by one bad cowpoke by the name of Clinch (Liam Neeson).

As is the case in many a MacFarlane production, plot elements and developments are highly contrived and conveniently staged. His Albert sure didn’t have to do a whole lot of. . . .shepherding. . . to impress the new lady in town. It all comes together somewhat (in)organically, thanks to a script that might as well have been penned by a retarded sheep. The entire premise is one drawn-out and predictable affair, as Albert faces a series of gun fights in the center of town against multiple villains, none of which he’s had much preparation for. Not to mention, the story shockingly lacks the energy and enthusiasm typical of the man’s controversial work. Instead of being plump with brand-new side-slapping jokes, we get a different variation of the crass monuments the man has spent a lifetime erecting behind a microphone and hilarious animation.

Maybe the punishment fits the crime? My naïveté for hoping for something more original has landed me in a world of disappointment.

If he’s not careful, A Million Ways to Die in the West might well be the final frontier of MacFarlane’s live-action film-making career. It is not a good movie, and while disappointment might seem like an all but predictable conclusion to arrive at it is certainly the case here. A Million Ways to Die in the West. . .more like a million ways to yawn in your seat.

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2-0Recommendation: This isn’t a good film, even by Seth MacFarlane standards. The guy may have only made two live-action films, but his first stab at it still claims the higher ground. A Million Ways to Die in the West suffers from an uninspired premise and incredibly flat performances that are of no one’s fault but the script’s. Liam Neeson comes to work each day, this we can tell — and ditto that to Charlize Theron and Neil Patrick Harris. But the rest telegraph it in, including MacFarlane as a director and co-writer. Personally, I hope he sticks to animated TV shows more in the future.

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Please don’t shoot us on sex night!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: The Italian Job (2003)

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Okay, so as we all know by now, this upcoming weekend is a doozy. First, the release of Don Jon, the brand-new film that’s directed, written by and starring the multi-faceted Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Secondly, and with all due respect to JGL, more importantly, Ron Howard’s new biopic, Rush, finally gets the green light to be released before worldwide audiences. All September long I have been taking some (brief) trips back in time by revisiting some flicks that feature cars and/or racing in some major way. Ranging from the slapstick/comedic to the more atmospheric and dramatic, this month’s entries have been a ton of fun to compose, and it has really helped to build some momentum as we head into the next Howard masterpiece (fingers AND toes crossed here, peeps). So with the appropriate formalities behind us, let’s dive into the fourth and final entry in this month’s TBT thread. 

Today’s food for thought: The Italian Job.

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Release: May 30, 2003 

[Theater]

That the Italian Job remake would involve Mini Coopers was a concept I at first was slow to respond to. I felt that the cars were silly-looking in a movie, though this was probably another ill-begotten impression I had acquired as an angst-riddled, pimply teen in high school. I also had no idea what to look for in movies then, either. Sixteen-year-old me, the fool.

The more I think back on it now, the cooler this movie seems and the more those tiny but speedy little shopping carts seem like characters themselves. They’re certainly crucial to the story.

Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg) heads up a team of master thieves to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs after being robbed at gunpoint and left for dead by a traitorous inside man. After the most recent job has gone without a hitch, the gang — John (Donald Sutherland), Handsome Rob (Jason Statham, repping probably the best character name he’s ever been given), Lyle (Seth Green), Left Ear (Mos Def) and Steve (Edward Norton) are en route to split the $35 million they just lifted from a safe in Venice into their own personal shares when they are betrayed suddenly by Steve, who’s been apparently waiting a long time for this moment.

Thanks to some unfortunate developments, Charlie has to crawl back to old acquaintances for help in his new mission to retrieve the gold from Steve, and enlists the help of expert safe cracker Stella (Charlize Theron), who happens to be John’s daughter. A tried-and-true, formulaic plot has her character reject the offer at first, but as sure as eggs are eggs she eventually comes around. Also predictably, the rest of the gang doesn’t exactly take kindly to the presence of a woman on the job, and despite her obvious beauty she finds it difficult to fit in immediately.

When the gang finally seem to be functioning like a tight-knit unit once again, they make their first moves on Steve, who is living luxuriously in a heavily-guarded estate in the Los Angeles area, and appears to have accrued a number of items that some of his former colleagues had said they were looking to buy once they had the money. Indeed, Ed Norton manages to pull off the highly dislikable role of Steve Frezelli with ease. He’s a sniveling, hot-tempered man who doesn’t appear all that intimidating right from the get-go.

In essence, he’s the perfect villain here — the quintessential action-movie bad-guy-as-Benedict-Arnold — a man who is on par with the rest of the cast in terms of having the same kind of intuition, the same levels of emotion and a shared personal history to make the showdown(s) more compelling than it/they rightfully should be. This remake, which comes nearly 35 years after the classic Michael Caine version, certainly ups the ante with respect to the violence and other suggestive themes (for those who are unaware, the 1969 movie is rated G), but it  still maintains a fun, energetic atmosphere that gives this new version a reason to exist.

The Italian Job dances around familiar themes and despite a lot of high-tech gadgetry and thoughtful planning, this plot’s combination isn’t exactly a tough one to crack, though it’s easily digestible and the film overall is a total blast. The ensemble cast convinces us they are at least having one. It’s reflected in their respective roles with the way everyone gels as a group as they turn the tables against Steve and his henchmen. Wahlberg and Theron make for a highly likable pairing, and his crew — particularly Mos Def and his dog phobia — succeed in bringing forth the laughs.

With several memorable car chase sequences — who doesn’t want to take their Mini Cooper down a flight of stairs? — this film makes for a nice exit from the ‘Movies that Really Move’ theme this month. It’s a constant reminder of my needing to seek out the original, as well. I maintain a healthy skepticism of every remake ever done (Robocop, let’s see if you can be an exception) so I’m fully expecting the enjoyment level to increase greatly when I sit back and experience the material upon which this highly-amiable adventure is based.

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3-5Recommendation: A fast-paced and decidedly more Americanized heist film, F. Gary Gray’s version may not be the superior one, but it’s both a good example of a remake treated with respect and is simultaneously a riveting little outing that’s filled with entertaining characters and some fun in Mini Coopers. And Ed Norton is always great to watch. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 104 mins.

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