REVIEW: Atomic Blonde

26 07 2017

Pick some earwax and you’ll miss it, but a news anchor in the background of David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde” makes a telling remark as he pivots away from the Berlin Wall’s collapse toward entertainment news. “Sampling,” he asks, “is it art, or is it just plagiarism?” It’s an amusing pop culture callback that functions, likely unwittingly, as a moment of self-interrogation.

“Atomic Blonde” careens back and forth between pastiche, homage and outright theft in its late-’80s espionage romp through a divided Berlin. There’s value in having the agent behind these actions be an unapologetically badass Charlize Theron, a spy who knows few boundaries be they legal, moral or sexual. Also, her first hit to her (primarily) male assailants is typically in the groin region.

But why, oh why, is her opening credits strut set to David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)?” That song is now clearly associated with Shoshanna’s empowerment montage in “Inglourious Basterds?” The film boasts a soundtrack full of Reagan-era rock touchstones, and finding another one that did not so immediately recall the work of a superior filmmaker would not be hard.

Screenwriter Kurt Johnstad also insists on a “True Detective” Season 1 style framing device with Theron’s Lorraine Braughton, beaten and bruised, recounting her story in a dark room to two interrogators. It’s a stark contrast to the film’s otherwise blue and pink neon-soaked action, so fluorescent you can’t help but wonder if Nicolas Winding Refn is lurking in some corner offscreen silently brooding. The one exception to the otherwise humdrum proceedings is an ornate combat and escape sequence meant to look like one take (but look closely and you’ll see plenty of cheat cuts masked by whip pans). It’s not a crime to be unoriginal; heck, plenty of other summer 2017 release would be in movie jail if so. But “Atomic Blonde” manages to be that as well as uninspired. C

Advertisements




REVIEW: Dark Places

7 08 2015

Dark PlacesDark Places,” the latest cinematic adaptation of novelist Gillian Flynn, provides a similar ride to her smash hit “Gone Girl” on a smaller and slower scale.  Satisfactory yet not sensational, it will play just fine for the shut-in cinephile looking for a modest recreation of Fincher’s phenomenal film.

Like “Gone Girl,” “Dark Places” shuffles back and forth between two timelines.  The first takes place in the present day, where Charlize Theron’s Libby Day grapples with a little bit of survivor’s remorse but far more money issues.  The second, set in 1985, depicts the infamous events that gave her fifteen minutes of fame: the slaughter of her mother and two sisters.  Her good-natured but incorrigible brother, Ben, takes the rap for the crime.

Arguably, there are more balls in play during “Dark Places.”  The present day story centers on Libby almost exclusively as she begins to question her recollection of the murders and her testimony that put Ben behind bars.  Her quest to re-examine the truth comes after honest probing – and cash bribing – by Nicholas Hoult’s Lyle, a fanatical devotee of the case’s minutiae.

Meanwhile, on the Day’s rural turf, the film follows more than just Ben (Tye Sheridan) as he gallivants between some Satanist burnouts and his ill-tempered girlfriend Diondra (Chloe Grace Moretz).  It also shows the travails of the embattled matriarch, Christina Hendricks’ Patty, as she fights tooth and nail to preserve her family’s dignity and land.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Mad Max: Fury Road

13 05 2015

George Miller certainly trusts his audience.  30 years after the last entry in his cult franchise, he throws us into a fully realized dystopian society with little spoon-fed exposition in “Mad Max: Fury Road.”  It’s a nice gear shift in the Marvel Cinematic Universe age, where the minutiae of everything require spelling out in excruciatingly explicit terms.

He also respects his audience, giving them plenty of what they want: high-octane, well-choreographed motorized action.  Miller, no doubt aided by the spectacular lensing of John Seale and the precise editing rhythms of Jason Ballantine, conducts an orchestra of crashing contraptions in the desert sands.  These complex sequences flow effortlessly, and only when the following scene began in silence did I realize how rapidly and loudly Miller made my heart beat.

These thrilling sequences also gain some emotional heft since “Mad Max: Fury Road” gives them actual human stakes within the narrative.  For once, a film does not equate adrenaline with testosterone – “men’s rights” activists be damned.  Despite the character’s name in the title, Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky hardly sits in the driver’s seat to guide the film forward.  That honor belongs to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, a warrior fleeing the tyrannical kingdom to lead several of the leader’s concubines to freedom.

Strength through silence is a fairly common method for males to assert dominance on screen, though it only works partially for Hardy here.  Perhaps my limited knowledge of “Mad Max” lore plays into this, but Max’s ambivalence seems rooted in a lack of character development and background.  Miller doles out flashes of Max’s clairvoyant mental state here and there, although the uninitiated like myself are left to wonder if they are alluding to the past or setting up future installments.

Read the rest of this entry »





F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 21, 2014)

21 11 2014

Academy Award winner Charlize Theron is Sylvia, a Portland restaurant worker who feels distinctly spiritually absent.  She still has a cutting problem that she manages to keep inconspicuous from the world, and she frequently engages in sex with men in an attempt to feel something.  Theron gives one of those “physically naked signifying emotionally naked” kind of performances, which proves hauntingly effective.

Academy Award winner Kim Basinger is Gina, a wife and mother in New Mexico who can only find happiness in the embrace of her Hispanic lover, Nick.  Their affair crosses not just ethnic but also social class boundaries, two status markers that erect rigid divisions in their small community.

Now an Academy Award winner, Jennifer Lawrence is Mariana, a self-sufficient teen thrown into the responsibilities of surrogate motherhood far too early.  (The character now makes for an interesting antecedent to “Winter’s Bone” as well as “The Hunger Games.”)  She is at a transitional moment in her life, unsure of how to feel about her inattentive mother and budding romantic prospect.  Lawrence marvelously conveys both her tenacity and her insecurity.

“The Burning Plain” is a movie where – gasp! – all these women’s stories connect, as characters often tended to be linked somehow in the first decade of the 2000s.  This is my selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” though, because writer/director Guillermo Arriaga ties these disparate storylines into one complete package.  (Arriaga had plenty of practice writing the first three “hyperlink cinema” screenplays for director Alejandro González Iñárritu.)  His film is a plaintive meditation on the paralyzing effects of guilt that lands with somber impact thanks to a carefully crafted script and three quietly moving female performances.





REVIEW: A Million Ways to Die in the West

2 06 2014

According to Seth MacFarlane, there are a million ways to die in the west.  Too bad not a one of them could have come to put me out of my misery while watching his dreadful new film.  It doesn’t just miss the mark of Western comedic great “Blazing Saddles;” MacFarlane pretty much misfires on laughs altogether.

A Million Ways to Die in the West” amounts to little more a bloated reel of MacFarlane kvetching about everything in his life.  At first, it just seems like a long-winded way of setting up the perilousness of the primitive civilization he intends to mock.  Yet after about 10 minutes, it becomes clear that MacFarlane is never going to shut up.  The experience becomes akin to being locked in a room with your annoying friend that can only speak in the form of complaints – for nearly two hours.

MacFarlane’s relentless pessimism is so pervasive that it overpowers the rest of the cast.  Only Neil Patrick Harris, cleverly employed here as a cocky cuckold with a finely-kept mustache, manages to entertain in the slightest with any wit.  Charlize Theron, as MacFarlane’s pseudo-love interest, coasts through the film on autopilot and never really sparks.  Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson are mentally checked out as well, but they’re playing such familiar roles that it really doesn’t seem quite as egregious.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Prometheus

17 12 2012

It’s rare to see any movie delve into deep theological, ontological, and existential questions that have puzzled humanity for millennia.  “Prometheus” isn’t even a pensive indie – it’s a blockbuster – and it still ponders them deeply in the far reaches of our universe to satisfying and intellectually stimulating effect.

Director Ridley Scott and screenwriters Damon Lindelof and John Spaihts don’t pretend to have any answers.  Thankfully, they don’t have that kind of hubris.  After all, these are the quandaries that have kept philosophers twiddling their thumbs.  But it doesn’t ever feel like a cop out or negligent writing.  They effectively stage a thoughtful drama in outer space and pose the questions to a new audience in an freshly compelling frame.

A number of people have quibbled about the small things in “Prometheus,” such as its fidelity to the “Alien” franchise, the plausibility of various events, the nature of the “engineers” that serve as the mysterious beings for the film, and the motivations of certain characters.  And if you really wanted to nitpick Scott’s film, I’m sure you could find some flaws and holes in the plot.  I, for one, really want to know why people are apparently unable to run laterally a century from now.

But to harp on the fine print is to miss the point of “Prometheus” entirely.  It’s a layered cerebral and psychological drama that just happens to use the framework of science-fiction.  The film finds fascinating parallels between the mysteries of extra-terrestrial life and the mystery of our own origins and existence.  Then, it heightens our senses and gets the heart racing.  The mind, naturally, wants to catch up and runs in overdrive after the movie to ponder what it just experienced.

Read the rest of this entry »





SAVE YOURSELF from “The Road”

27 11 2012

The RoadI’m in a semi-minority when I say that John Hillcoat’s film “The Road” is a dreadful movie.  However, I know I’m in a vast minority when I say that Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road,” the book Hillcoat’s film is based on, is just as bad – if not worse.  Yes, I’m taking issue with the novel that won the Pulitzer Prize and Entertainment Weekly‘s distinction of the best book of the past 25 years.

To all the haters who are sure to be drawn out of hiding by this pan, I assure you that I’m not some uneducated Philistine who is quibbling with McCarthy’s unconventional prosaic style.  Sure, it makes it a difficult read, but I actually quite enjoy it.  The experience is tough but refreshing, particularly in McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men.”

But “The Road” is just tedious and boring.  Yes, I know that’s the point!  But beyond a certain point, I get it.  I understand how the man, played with vigor in the film by Viggo Mortensen, and the boy, portrayed by then newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee in a rather impressive debut, feel on the road.  I don’t need to spend hours of my time reading them do the same things and having minor variations of the same conversation, day after day.  It makes for a great short story or short film, but stretched to novel and feature film lengths, monotony ensues.

Perhaps Hillcoat was fated to displease me with “The Road” since many of my issues with the text and story seem to be rather systemic, foundational quibbles.  Yet the upstart Australian director had made a capable, taut thriller in “The Proposition” before he tackled McCarthy’s work.  (“Lawless” had its issues as well, but I still admired the work on display.)

Joe Penhall’s script tries to add some sensationalism to make the story more tolerable (and commercially viable, I can imagine), but the attempts fail miserably.  Making The Man’s wife a larger character in the narrative adds nothing to the story, even when she’s played by the talented Charlize Theron.  Adding further dimensions of terror to their foes on the road don’t make the movie any more thrilling.  Instead, we are left with a film that ambles slowly and uninterestingly towards bleak nothingness and can’t succeed at the one thing that should have been a no-brainer for it: a deep character study of the Man and his Son.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbLgszfXTAY