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 

Hurricane

hurricane-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, August 31, 2016 (Vimeo)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Christiano Dias

Directed by: Christiano Dias


This short film review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. A tip of the hat to James, who runs the show over there.


Hurricane is the brand new film from Christiano Dias, an experienced short film director who has managed to fit 20 writer-director credits under his belt in the span of a decade. His latest puts a humorous spin on anti-Communist sentiments running rampant in 1950s America.

It tells a darkly comic tale of a couple, Oslo (Corey Page) and Eva Alduars (Lisa Roumain), experiencing some strange happenings during the course of dinner. A tense argument over the meal soon focuses on the radio they have playing in the background, which crackles in and out before eventually going silent. It reminds Oslo of a similar incident that apparently happened at a neighbor’s house, in which a man had discovered a wiretapping device inside his radio. Supposedly that same man had disappeared from the area not long after that. Oslo suspects the Commies got him.

Moments later, a knock at the door. A boy introduces himself as Benjamin Shaw (David Jay), and appears to be selling newspaper subscriptions. But something just doesn’t add up. Oslo begins to think the timing of these events is no coincidence. Meanwhile, a storm closes in on the house outside. Dias challenges us to consider all of the possibilities here, including what seems most unlikely.

What’s most apparent with Hurricane are the production values. Crisp colors and retro shapes and objects transport you back into the Cold War era, a physical sense of time and place conjured from wisely chosen props and set decor, not least of which is that pesky radio — virtually a character unto itself. Thick curtains drawn across large windows occupy considerable space within the frame, a not-so-subtle nod to the Red Scare.

It’s not just visual cues that tip us off, either. There’s a lot of strong eye-acting going on here, whether it’s an accusatory stare from over the top of Oslo’s glasses or the intense look of irritation, borderline anger, in Eva’s. Watch as the look turns from one of disgust to concern as she watches the man steadily come undone. The period details even is evident in the tones of voices used, the cadence with which the characters speak. Paying attention to these little nuances is more important than to the acting itself, which can be pretty shaky.

Those details add up to a unique and at times disconcerting experience that plays with notions of how paranoia and mistrust can lead us to make poor decisions and act irrationally. The set-up is simple but effective, making for a short film that I really kind of have to recommend.

Recommendation: An interesting take on the atmosphere of paranoia, fear and mistrust in the years leading up to and certainly including the Cold War. Juggles comedy with dramatic beats pretty effectively, even if the acting is at times a bit shaky. On the whole, though, these are 14 minutes very well spent. I enjoyed the strangeness of it all and this makes me really want to check out more of Dias’ work. An easy recommendation to make. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 14 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . .]

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Photo credits: http://www.screencritix.com; http://www.vimeo.com

Spectre

Spectre movie poster

Release: Friday, November 6, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: John Logan; Neal Purvis; Robert Wade; Jez Butterworth

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Spectre, a proposition with so much weight and symbolism behind it it required four writers to collaborate on the story. Four writers means four times the quality, right?

Right . . . ?

After three years James Bond comes flying back into action in Sam Mendes’ parting gift to fans of a franchise that’s by now half a century old. The literal sense of ‘flying’ is certainly more applicable as Mendes spends precious little time setting up his first action spectacle involving a helicopter, a stepping-stone of a henchman and a backdrop of Mexico engulfed in the Day of the Dead festivities where everyone looks like skeletons. A none too subtle reference to the fact Bond is now literally up to his neck in death. It’s an inescapable entity.

Metaphorically speaking? Well, if we’re talking big picture — and why not, this is a pretty big picture after all . . . arguably second only to that movie about wars amongst the stars coming up in December — Bond doesn’t so much come flying back as he does carefully, calmly touch back down with parachute attached, in the vein of one of his many improbable escapes in this movie.

Spectre had one hell of a steep mountain to climb if it was interested in besting its visually spectacular, emotionally hard-hitting predecessor, though it’s going to have much less issue summoning the spectators who are curious as to where Bond’s threshold for enduring misery and pain comes, if it comes at all. Invoking the sinister organization that gave Sean Connery a bit of grief back in the ’60s is one way to attract the masses (not to mention, something to build an aggressive marketing campaign around). Budgeted at an almost incomprehensible $250(ish) million, it’ll go down as one of the most expensive productions of all time.

Recouping that may not be as much of a challenge as I’m thinking it might be right now. When word gets out that Spectre is merely decent and not great — and it will soon enough — it will be interesting to see what happens. Will a lack of ambition deprive it the opportunity to become a major contender for top grossers this year? I suppose I better hold my tongue because anything can and does happen.

Ignoring its business potential, and for all of its shortcomings, of which there are disappointingly many, Spectre is still good old-fashioned James Bond, emerging a stylistically superior product — sleek and ultra-sexy, bathed in shadow and whipping slithery, shiny tentacles with menace in another memorable opening title sequence. Yet for all the familiarity this is the least Daniel Craig-y Bond we’ve seen. It’s a bizarre mix of some of the heaviest themes the franchise has yet visited with a comical edge reminiscent of the Pierce Brosnan era. (I won’t go as far as to bring up Roger Moore’s name . . . whoops.)

In some ways it makes sense; Mendes probably felt he needn’t overdo the dourness this time as we’ve been thoroughly bruised by what 007’s sacrificed in Casino Royale and now Skyfall. These aren’t DC Comic film adaptations; they shouldn’t be all punishment. The film should have some balance, and while the humor’s less punny as Brosnan’s brand, the way it’s introduced draws attention to itself in often jarring ways. Something doesn’t quite feel organic.

Spectre‘s concerned with shaking Bond to his core, as a man and as a professional assassin with a British accent and impossibly high-class taste in women. He’s going to get rattled even more so than he was in the last outing, where he basically lost everything. Mendes finds ways to make it more personal as we move beyond M and start digging into Bond’s familial history. Bond stumbles upon a mysterious ring that has an octopus symbol on it and sets out learning about its origins and who else might be wearing one. There’s also an old photograph, with parts of it burned away so you can’t make out one of the faces in it.

This hunt, unapproved by MI6, leads him on another exotic globetrotting mission — these transitions feel considerably less inspired than in times past — that takes him from Mexico to Austria, Tangiers to a desolate meteorite crater in Morocco and ultimately back to MI6 headquarters in London. On the way he comes into contact with friends both new and old — top of the list is the daughter of a rapidly ailing Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, who is somehow even sexier than before), whom he must protect even when she insists she can protect herself thank you very much. But she doesn’t factor in Dave Bautista’s brute of a hitman, Hinx.

Madeleine turns out to be a handy traveling companion as she helps Bond get closer to finding out what the octopus ring represents. She, with a dark past she would rather soon forget than get into another gun fight, is reluctant to join Bond in seeking out the lair of one Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). She does anyway because the script is that insistent. (So no, to answer the question: four writers does not necessarily equate to four times the quality.)

As Bond is off galavanting about, the situation on the home front is turning rather dire as MI6 has become absorbed by a larger network of secret service agencies, the CNS, spearheaded by Andrew Scott’s sneering and highly enjoyable Max Denbigh. His rhetoric is not as newsworthy as the filmmakers would like us to believe it is. He wants to shut down the 00 sector and replace human field agents with drones and computers, arguing one man in the field is no match for technological upgrades. He’s right.

But it doesn’t matter because with Bond being Bond, especially now with Craig taking the role in a direction that’s ever more hinting towards the muscularity of a Jason Bourne and away from the debonair of Sean Connery, there’s little they can do to prevent him using his License to Kill. I don’t care how threatening you may appear in front of Ralph Fiennes, you can’t take scissors to a card and denounce Bond’s status as an agent. You can scrub him from the official files, I suppose. Alas, the old argument: the instincts and emotional judgment of man versus the unfeeling, calculated efficiency of A.I. Sigh. This is, unfortunately, where we go in Spectre. And as for the family matters, the less said about it the better (take that as both a good and bad thing).

Mendes’ last entry is a good film on its own terms but it shrugs off its responsibility to be the most compelling entry in the franchise thus far, at certain points seeming so disinterested in upping the ante and instead revisiting many classic Bond moments in a pastiche that feels both unnecessary and awkward. Save for the aforementioned supervillian, who is by turns thoroughly disturbing and darkly funny — here’s where the humor would be a bit too sophisticated for the Brosnan era — Spectre introduces precious little new information. It’s a painful thing to say, but perhaps this sector is indeed obsolete at this point.

Recommendation: While not vintage James Bond, Spectre offers enough to fans of this long-standing franchise to keep some momentum going, even if quite a lot is lost. A good film with more than the usual number of flaws, is this film yet another victim of the hype machine? What do you think?

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 148 mins.

Quoted: “It was me, James. The author of all your pain.”

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

Bridge of Spies

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Matt Charman; Joel Coen; Ethan Coen

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

The Red Scare may be long since over but in Steven Spielberg’s 29th feature (!) we’re thrown right back into the thick of it as Tom Hanks is tapped to negotiate the swapping of two major (human) pawns caught in a protracted and ugly chess match of intel gathering, fear mongering and society dividing.

Bridge of Spies, the collaborative effort of almost too many Academy Award winners (is there such a thing?) — directed by Spielberg, brought to life by Hanks and penned by the Coens in conjunction with relative unknown Matt Charman — has all the makings of another Spielberg classic. While it certainly does no harm to anyone’s reputation — to state the obvious, this is a thoroughly enjoyable picture — it falls just shy of greatness. Then again, that’s a bar set so high it becomes paradoxical: not even Spielberg can top Spielberg at his finest.

In 1957 Brooklyn, suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested at his apartment and taken into custody. The American public, having been rattled by the recent Rosenberg conspiracy in which an American husband and wife had been found guilty of selling secrets to the USSR about the Americans’ development of an atomic bomb, demands Abel be sentenced to death. Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) is called upon to represent Abel for reasons that are still bewildering to this critic. I suppose it’s enough that Donovan’s firm knows how seriously he is committed to his duties, or maybe it’s because everyone else who was asked said no. It’s not exactly clear either way, though fortunately his meteoric rise to national prominence isn’t clumsily handled.

Of course no one, not even Donovan’s family — most notably his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) — expects Donovan to seek Abel’s acquittal; the assumption is Donovan would facilitate a fair trial as a kind of courtesy to the currently most-hated man in the country. The atmosphere is such that Abel’s fate is all but a foregone conclusion, yet Donovan seeks a lighter sentence, a 30 year stretch in prison, which would all but ensure Abel’s death anyway. He finds himself at the mercy of the Supreme Court after trying to argue evidence gathered against the Soviet (whom Donovan has curiously been sympathetic to from day one) has been tainted by an invalid search warrant. He loses the case, 5-4.

Meanwhile, an American pilot by the name of Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) has been shot down over Russian soil while on a reconnaissance mission, captured, convicted and imprisoned by a somehow less empathetic government who subjects him to torture as they similarly assume him to be a spy. Following his perhaps predictable defeat, Donovan is asked to negotiate the release of Powers in exchange for Abel, putting him at even greater odds with his fellow Americans. To further complicate matters, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American graduate student studying German economics in East Germany, is captured when he finds himself on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall.

As we shift into the middle third of the film the environment becomes decidedly more chilly, and tension begins to build in earnest. What was supposed to be a simple, though by no means easy, exchange of one American for one Soviet, devolves into a circus of lies and misdirection, with Donovan receiving none of the hospitality overseas that he extended to Abel back home. It’s against a backdrop of post-World War II devastation and the bitter European winter our embattled lawyer has to have the toughest conversations yet. After much deliberation and with his patience wearing thin, he bluntly tells Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch), Donovan’s German equivalent, there will be no deal between the U.S. and the Soviets if they can’t negotiate the release of both Powers and Pryor for Abel. If there’s anything to be gained from such a hugely risky request, it’s our appreciation for why he is the man for this job — I don’t even think Hanks, the person, is quite this principled.

To reiterate, Spies isn’t vintage Spielberg and because it isn’t, it’s all too easy to dismiss as a minor entry. There’s nothing minor about a private citizen brokering this historic deal, though. There’s nothing forgettable about the way the Coens and Charman manage to create a clear dichotomy between Russian and American sentiments, even if the Coens have to censor themselves more than usual here. Spies could have been a truly dark picture, yet it understands that often violence is more potent when suggested rather than demonstrated. That’s not to say the film isn’t a sobering reminder of the state of the world in the late ’40s through the ’50s. The rampant paranoia is best captured in an early scene in which Donovan’s school-aged son is preparing for the inevitable dropping of the atomic bomb, while struggling to understand why his father is trying to protect “one of them.”

As per usual, the Spielbergian approach encompasses several different genres — historical drama, loosely-defined biopic, espionage thriller — and it’s compelling in each capacity, combining historical elements while exploring the many layers that make human beings what they are, regardless of nationality. Once more he delivers a wholesome product that’s equal parts entertaining and informative. It’s a quietly powerful picture and one well worth visiting.

Recommendation: Reliably strong work from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg makes Bridge of Spies an unexpectedly warm and enjoyable outing. Though not quite top-shelf stuff, this Cold War-set thriller should please fans of either camp and American/European history buffs. Perhaps its biggest shortcoming (maybe it’s more of a disappointment than a flat-out failure) is that the Coen brothers’ signature quirky, dark humor gets lost in the shuffle here. There’s comedy to be found, sure, but this doesn’t really feel like a product of their writing. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “The next mistake our governments make could be the last one.”

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

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