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





REVIEW: X-Men: Apocalypse

14 02 2017

Is it becoming contractually obligatory for a series’ third installment to be bland and lackluster? Must they expend all their energy in the first two films? Because by the time “X-Men: Apocalypse” came to a close, I found myself struggling to recall what it was that had me so jazzed after Matthew Vaughn’s reinvigoration of the franchise in the first place.

“It’s like a two hour pilot that introduces you to a fantastic ensemble while also fleshing out the conflict between its two biggest stars,” I wrote of “X-Men: First Class” back in 2011. So to extend the television metaphor, I guess this is that point a few seasons into a show where I disengage after noticing it’s clearly jumped the shark. The deeper dive into the series’ key figures, James McAvoy’s Professor X and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, has now officially ceded way to bloated, overstuffed “Spider-Man 3” syndrome.

The numerous characters in the “X-Men” universe, from supersonic Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to teleporting Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), have moved from strength to liability. Singer, with the aid of screenwriter Simon Kinberg, packs “X-Men: Apocalypse” full of new characters who ultimately feel like they are playing out narratives in search of a spinoff franchise. And while there’s really only one villain, Oscar Isaac’s prehistoric Apocalypse, he gets so little to do that a great actor ends up giving a mummified performance.

That cast of rising stars, once such an asset for the series, now weighs like a millstone around its neck. McAvoy, Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult have all seen their stars rise considerably since 2011. They owe a lot of that to the “X-Men” franchise. And they don’t pay it back in what could likely serve as their final outing in the respective roles. It’s less acting and more contract fulfillment. C+2stars





REVIEW: Split

5 02 2017

M. Night Shyamalan makes smarter thrillers than your average Hollywood hired hand (as we’re now allowed to admit again). His latest, “Split,” showcases the director’s skill at using shot composition as a tool far scarier than the shaky cam faux-verité aesthetic plaguing the genre. Shyamalan understands that the artificial and the unnatural possess a deeply unsettling category that many filmmakers neglect to wield.

It’s a great stylistic match for this story, featuring James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with an advanced dissociative personality disorder that enables him to toggle between 23 different personas. The role serves as an obvious exhibition of McAvoy’s considerable range and technical precision; the mastery becomes quite scary when he eventually erupts in a fit of feral rage. His unpredictability makes decisions complicated for the three teenage female victims he kidnaps and imprisons, although one with a similarly dark past (Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey) possesses a special insight that proves valuable in outsmarting his personalities.

“Split” works well when Shyamalan allows it to function as a taut captivity thriller given the unknown variable of Kevin’s ever-shifting identity. He does disrupt the forward progress of that narrative with two separate cutaway stories, however. The first, repeated asides with Kevin’s psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betsy Buckley), sheds light on how he functions not as “less than” regular people but as something greater. The second, which provides background on why Casey seems equipped to handle Kevin, ultimately adds little to the film. I kept waiting for it to come full circle in a signature Shyamalan twist, but … well, without spoiling, the ending serves the filmmaker far more than it serves the film. Red herrings are fine, to be clear, but their worth is questionable when they disrupt the pace of the film to extent that this one does. B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

29 12 2014

Eleanor RigbyThe basic premise of writer/director Ned Benson’s “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” to be clear, is nothing particularly special.  James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain star as Connor Ludlow and Eleanor Rigby, respectively, a married couple in New York City hitting a devastating rough patch after a miscarriage.  Each deals with the tragedy in their own way, and Benson gives each story a feature’s length to develop.

Meant for consumption as one, “Him” follows Connor as he attempts to shake off the funk by throwing himself into his work for external validation while “Her” takes Eleanor’s point of view as she searches for greater meaning through introspection and education.  By isolating rather than integrating Connor and Eleanor’s journey, Benson makes perspective and subjectivity the prime focus of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.”

(Note: I did not bother to watch the streamlined edit that intercuts their stories, subtitled “Them,” because it seemed to defeat the purpose of the unconventional style.)

Students of narrative will relish this schismatic storytelling, analyzing what can be gleaned from one section that cannot be discerned in another.  Scenes shared by the former couple lend themselves to entirely different interpretations depending on the amount of information at hand on approach.  Integral figures in one person’s life are entirely irrelevant or nonexistent in that of the other.  Benson inquisitively asks how much can anyone know about others when trapped to see the world only through their own eyes, a question with strongly felt reverberations.

By all accounts, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” serves as a reminder that everyone has their own narrative.  Even the entrance (or exit) of a spouse does not create a shared story.  As important as that person is, they are merely another character in a grander arc.  Benson’s shedding of illusions surrounding coupling allows for a rich, nuanced portrayal of individual identity reclaimed and reasserted.

As such, “Him” and “Her” are both successful features as independent entities, not merely as half of a whole or only as an object for juxtaposition.  McAvoy commands his section by seizing the day and rallying to action to keep himself afloat; he is also bolstered by a strong dramatic turn from Bill Hader as a coworker and companion.  Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain proves irresistibly compelling as she mines the deepest recesses of her psyche for any kind of redemptive discovery.  In their contrast, Benson finds a beautifully dissonant harmony.  B+3stars





REVIEW: X-Men: Days of Future Past

12 06 2014

Thanks to the patience and planning of Marvel that culminated in “The Avengers,” now every franchise is rushing to super-size their output by converging as many properties into one film as humanly possible.  Among these stuffed tentpoles, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is probably about as clever as we can expect them to get.  Bryan Singer’s latest entry in the franchise plays to its greatest strength, the strong ensemble cast, to help power what is otherwise a fairly average film.

In 2011, the series essentially rebooted with a cast of rising stars that included James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and Nicholas Hoult as younger versions of the characters.  Not that the original cast was lacking in talent with Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, and Halle Berry.

Since their timeline never really ended (not that this stops the studios nowadays), what better way to bridge old and new than with a little bit of time travel?  And who better to be the intermediary than Jackman’s Wolverine, the only character popular enough to inspire spin-offs?  It all makes perfect sense.

“Days of Future Past” also manages to incorporate Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven/Mystique into the proceedings quite a bit more.  That, of course, couldn’t possibly be because she’s the most loved actress in America at the moment.  It just so happens that she’s the key to preventing annihilation of mutants in the bleak future inhabited by the older versions of the characters.  Wolverine must travel back to the ’70s to prevent her from assassinating defense contractor Raymond Trask (Miles Finch himself, Peter Dinklage) and enabling the creation of the mutant-massacring Sentinels.

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REVIEW: Trance

24 07 2013

TranceFor movies with labyrinthine plots, such as “Inception” or “Shutter Island,” rigorous structural complexities come with a necessary prerequisite: a desire to care and piece together a million-piece jigsaw moving at a mile per minute.  If we aren’t engaged in the story, the pieces will just sit on the coffee table forever.

That being said, the dots of Danny Boyle’s “Trance” will forever remain unconnected for me.  It’s a convoluted mess that seems to lack a lot of basic cohesiveness.  I was so unconvinced of its self-assuredness and basic integrity that I don’t want to take the effort to figure out if it’s even worth decrypting.

I’m surprised because I consider myself a big Danny Boyle fan, particularly “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” both of which moved me in profound ways.  He’s definitely still got it together stylistically, as “Trance” is an impressively edited trip of a film.  But a bunch of nice cuts don’t mean much if they don’t start creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

What’s ultimately assembled before our eyes is a brash bombardment of sound and fury, gaudy to the point of tastelessness.  As James McAvoy’s Simon undergoes hypnotherapy with Rosario Dawson’s Elizabeth, we’re flung down a rabbit hole of bent reality with no investment in the characters or the action.  Sound like a journey worth taking?

Boyle and screenwriter try to overcompensate with bombast, including a rather unnecessary and irrelevant flaunting of Dawson’s genitalia (and then they just throw in some James McAvoy nudity at the end just for fun).  The erotic skin show actually sums up so much of what’s wrong with “Trance” in the first place.  It’s an exclamation point to get your attention, which then reminds us that there was actually no sentence that preceded it.  While I’d like to trust Boyle, his film does not make a strong enough case for its audience to go in and clean up his mess themselves.  C2stars





REVIEW: Arthur Christmas

24 12 2012

Arthur ChristmasSometimes, animated movies are so busy trying to be clever that they forget to be charming or – dare I say it – cute.  If they lack the effortless ease of Pixar and the occasional DreamWorks release, they seem to often think that the charm flows directly from the creativity.

Arthur Christmas” is all the evidence I need to believe that the hypothesis above isn’t true.  It puts a digital, industrial spin on the age-old Christmas story of Santa Claus delivering presents to children all over the world.  Moreover, it manages to make its version of the yearly phenomena both funny and plausible.

The opening scene, showing the delivery from the perspective of the elves frantically working in mission control to ensure a successful Christmas, was absolutely fantastic.  It’s ingenuity at its finest, and I was braced for a delightful ride full of holiday spirit.

But then the film shifted towards the family dynamics of the Claus family, led by the lazy patriarchal Santa Claus voiced by Jim Broadbent.  His son Steve (the voice of House – I mean, Hugh Laurie) is gunning hard for him to retire so he can fulfill his birthright.  Meanwhile, there’s Arthur (voice of James McAvoy) running around with an unfettered optimism and idealism, something his family shrugs off and attempts to marginalize.

“Arthur Christmas” depicts the wee hours of Christmas morning when the family fails.  Well, really, Santa fails first as one gift does not get delivered, and Arthur takes it upon himself to ensure it gets received.  Along with an overeager wrapping elf and his grandfather, a former Santa Claus (voiced by Billy Mack – I mean, Bill Nighy) that shares Arthur’s enthusiasm, their adventure is most definitely exciting.  But with weak characterization and an overemphasis on craftiness, “Arthur Christmas” is hardly a cup of Christmas cheer for all to enjoy.  C+2stars