Atomic Blonde

July 28, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman
Directed by: David Leitch (debut)
Written by: Kurt Johnstad (“300”)

I’m firmly on the record as being on board for everything that “John Wick” maestros David Leitch and Chad Stahelski attach their names to from now until the end of time. Their action scenes are among the best cinema has to offer this side of Gareth Evans, and the worlds they create are so rich they put entire blockbuster franchises to shame.

Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde,” headlined by Charlize Theron, is another explosive showcase of the director’s talent. A lot of press lately has focused on Charlize doing her own stunts, and the movie certainly delivers on heroine ass-kicking. There’s decidedly less action here than in either of the John Wick installments, but Leitch cranks up the mayhem here to unprecedented levels of insanity. One particular sequence featuring a car chase is easily in contention for one of the greatest action sequences ever put to film.

In case you hadn’t already caught on, “Atomic Blonde” has fantastic action sequences. Regretfully, it doesn’t offer anything beyond that. Atomic Blonde has a running time of 115 minutes, and you really feel it. So much time is spent on exposition and backstory, but none of it accomplishes anything beyond turning the film into a dull slog. In adapting the graphic novel series by Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (both “300” movies, “Act of Valor”) tries his hardest to make a Cold War thriller, but even the slowest John le Carre moments bubble with more intrigue.

Review etiquette requires me to give some sort of a plot synopsis, but I’m going to have to forgo that formality due to the lamentable fact that the events that play out in the film are so instantly forgettable. Even great supporting talent like John Goodman, Toby Jones, and Sofia Boutella seem bored by having to deliver lifeless dialogue that is simultaneously dense and dull. Theron’s performance has a bit of that lifelessness too, which works for her character, but surrounding her lethal assassin with similar cold beings lessen her performance’s effect.

On the flip side, James McAvoy and Eddie Marsan tear up the screen in such a way you really want to see the crazy movie that they were in. There are lots of cases where Leitch seems to be down to make that movie, too, what with his upbeat (albeit on the nose) 80s soundtrack and his neon-tinged visuals. Ultimately, though, not even the brilliant mind of Leitch can save this movie. There’s a great ballet of carnage on display in “Atomic Blonde,” but the remainder of the film is so painfully out of tune you leave the theater wondering why such greatness had to be showcased alongside something so tepid.

The Beguiled

June 30, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kristen Dunst
Directed by: Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”)
Written by: Sofia Coppola (“Marie Antoinette”)

I’ve never seen Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel, “The Beguiled,” and I imagine that there are plenty of fascinating and inevitable nuggets to be discovered in comparing it with Sofia Coppola’s new adaptation. You won’t find such critical comparisons here, which is for the best since everything should be judged on its own merit. The “is this movie really necessary” argument is already being thrown around, and to those simpletons I retort: is any?

Coppola’s film boasts an epic cast featuring the likes of Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice and many more. The story is simple enough. After finding a wounded Union soldier in the woods, a Confederate all-girl boarding school finds its repetitive, undisturbed routine upended by the presence of a man in the house. True to the title, Farrell plays his character with the perfect mix of charm and rot. Coppola slowly peels back the layers of all her characters, revealing the darkness that resides in some of her characters while shattering the innocence of others. It’s compelling storytelling, though if you’re not a fan of Coppola’s steady pacing you may not find much to enjoy here.

This is a very tense and suspenseful movie, but it is also laugh-out-loud darkly comedic. “The Beguiled” throws us into a world where order, restraint, reverence, and etiquette are just as if not more oppressive than the war that rages on just outside the house’s gate. The opening shot of the film follows a young girl through woods flooded with cannonball smoke as the sounds of war echo. It’s the perfect way to open a film about creeping evil, and Philippe Le Sourd peppers the film with similar images to amplify that mood. The costumes from Stacey Battat, Coppola’s regular collaborator, tell so much about each character, marking this film as a perfect fusion of elements behind and in front of the camera.

That subdued style of storytelling works great as buildup, and while the payoff in the final act is explosive and dark, it could have gone darker. This is an R-rated movie, but the only given reason is sexuality (there’s thrusting; shame!). Coppola doesn’t seem to have any interest in embracing her R-rating. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it may have done “The Beguiled” some good if she had pushed the envelope a bit further.

Still, what remains is incredibly powerful and unforgettable. Part of what makes “The Beguiled” so entertaining is that it constantly changes what character you feel compelled to root for. I don’t really think there’s anything empowering about this movie. It’s a horrifying look into the complex intricacies of human nature. No matter how much of a front one tries to put on, there’s always insidious malevolency lurking beneath.

Baby Driver

June 29, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey
Directed by: Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”)
Written by: Edgar Wright (“Hot Fuzz”)

In a landscape overpopulated with dour and brooding popcorn movies, “Baby Driver” stands out as an optimistic beacon of cinematic bliss. This is moviemaking at its most relentlessly joyful, an intoxicating fusion of music and image guaranteed to make you grin from ear to ear. It’d be easy to say that we need more movies like this, but it’s impossible to duplicate something so special.

Ansel Elgort has always held a strong screen presence, but this will be the movie that makes him a star. He perfectly blends charm and angst, giving us a character that recalls Sinatra, McQueen, Brando, and Kelly, but one that is unarguably entirely his own. Elgort plays Baby, a getaway driver who constantly listens to music to drown out the tinnitus brought about by the car accident that took his parents‘ lives. Increasingly perturbed by the blood-tinged darkness his job attracts, Baby wants nothing more than to leave everything behind him and hit the road with beautiful waitress who works at the local diner.

Writer and director Edgar Wright’s film operates in a well-established genre (a cameo by Walter Hill cements what branch of cinema Edgar Wright is saluting), and he nails all the familiar notes while simultaneously bringing his singular vision to the table. The car chases are thrilling and fresh, taking place during the day to better see the great practical stunt work on display. There’s a warehouse shootout that, like everything else in “Baby Driver,” is choreographed and synced up perfectly in line with a killer soundtrack.

The romance between Baby and Debora (Lily James) has a classic feel to it. The two share a scene in a laundromat that bursts with energy and romance, and little details like talking on a payphone makes their relationship even more intoxicating. There’s a showdown between Baby and a villain at the end of the film, but it doesn’t involve that character you’d expect. In fact, you understand where both parties are coming from and find it hard to root entirely for one character. Even the final moments of the film take an unexpected but completely enthralling turn.

Wright’s script is layered, witty, and hilarious. All of his actors get great material to work with no matter the size of their part. You’ve never seen Jamie Foxx this terrifying, Kevin Spacey this catty, and Jon Hamm so gosh-darned magnetic. Everyone is on their A game here, including people in smaller roles. Mexico City native Eiza Gonzalez is a badass dame. Cast her in stuff, Hollywood. She’s destined for greatness. CJ Jones brings great heart to the table as Baby’s deaf roommate and father figure. There’s even a moment where Brogan Hall steals the show as Kevin Spacey’s son. The masterclass in editing is a crucial character in the film as well. There’s just so much to love and relish here. Before you even know it, “Baby Driver” will have stolen your heart.

47 Meters Down

June 20, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Chris Johnson
Directed by: Johannes Roberts (“The Other Side of the Door”)
Written by: Johannes Roberts (“The Other Side of the Door”) and Ernest Riera (“The Other Side of the Door”)

For a movie originally slated for a direct-to-VOD release, it’s amazing how much “47 Meters Down” accomplishes with so little. Then again, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. So many movies are finding audiences without ever being given a theatrical release. It’s clear that writer/director Johannes Roberts has a few tricks up his sleeve, and hopefully we’ll be able to see more of him now that his latest film has been graced with a wide release.

Mandy Moore and Claire Holt headline the film as sisters Lisa and Kate, who have traveled to Mexico for a fun summer vacation. Lisa is feeling a bit low in light of her breakup, but Kate continues to encourage her to do exciting things to make her ex jealous – like going into a tank and seeing sharks up close, for example.

That previous paragraph is the extent to which this film goes for characterization. Not only is there no journey of self-discovery here, but the movie doesn’t even seem interested in fleshing out any sort of arc for Lisa, who ultimately takes center stage here. Normally this kind of writing would be insulting, but Roberts and cowriter Ernest Riera are clearly more interested in the thrills, which more than make up for the film’s one-dimensionality.

Lisa and Kate’s shark tank journey goes incredibly wrong with the cable holding them up breaks and sends them plummeting down to the depths of the ocean. With limited air, light, and sharks lurking in the depths, Lisa and Kate must find a way to survive before their time runs out.

“47 Meters Down” has a definite sense of location, with Roberts moving his camera around fluidly to create a genuine sense of suspense. The majority of the film is set underwater, with characters talking to each other through headsets. It’s something that could have gone so wrong, but Roberts continuously gives him film jolts of energy, deftly mixing pulp and terror in a way that demands the audience’s investment.

“47 Meters Down” successfully depicts the unsettling creepiness that is endless ocean, creating a feeling not dissimilar to “Gravity.” Again, the comparisons end there, particularly when it comes to fleshing out the film’s characters. There is some slight satisfaction in seeing Lisa start to take control of her situation, but it’s more out of necessity than anything.

The film’s writing does make for a excruciatingly bland first act, but beyond that it’s hard to notice there really isn’t a character arc for anyone when we just want to see how Lisa and Kate avoid their latest problem. The 89-minute movie builds to a twist that you’ll probably be able to see coming, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Speaking of effective, the use of sharks in this movie is executed very successfully through a mix of practical and special effects.

Perhaps I was surprised by this movie because of how low my expectations were, but I found “47 Meters Down” a thrilling summer flick. Given that most of my expectations about anything in today’s world continue to be met or turn out to be too optimistic, it’s nice to be wrong sometimes.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

May 26, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem
Directed by: Joachim Ronning (“Kon-Tiki”) and Espen Sandberg (“Kon-Tiki”)
Written by: Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can”)

Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” is unlikely to turn any newcomers into enthusiastic fans of the franchise, but if you’re planning on making the fifth entry in this 14-year-old franchise your starting point, then please do yourself a favor and watch “The Curse of the Black Pearl” before heading to the theater this Memorial Day weekend. Gore Verbinski’s 2003 film remains one of the all-time great adventure films, deftly mixing sharp-witted humor, unsettling creepiness, and exhilarating action. The series has been chasing that magic to varied results ever since, but directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg have created an installment that continues to steer the franchise away from the overlong, convoluted mess that was “At World’s End.”

Since its inception, one of the recurring motifs of the Pirates franchise (not to mention countless other series) has been fathers and sons. That notion rears its head again in “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” where a fresh-faced Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is searching for the trident of Poseidon, which can help free his father from his eternal servitude as captain aboard the Flying Dutchman. The way that search unfolds is, in trademark “Pirates” fashion, complicated and devoid of logical motivations, but somehow Ronning and Sandberg fashion a slick and entertaining summer movie.

With a running time of 129 minutes, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” is the shortest entry in the franchise, and the absence of Verbinski’s bombastic approach occasionally makes the film feel small in its scope. To its credit, the film never stalls or drags its feet. In fact, the script from Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio spends a lot of time setting up story and fleshing out characters. It’s not Tennessee Williams levels of character depth, but it creates a level of investment.

That level of investment is heightened by the familiar faces of Captain Jack, Barbossa, and Gibbs. If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ll be pleased with great character moments and interactions. Johnny’s Depp’s Jack Sparrow seems a bit dialed down and sometimes even more Mad Hatter than Jack. This is probably due to the fact that the script requires him to be a bit of a bumbling idiot and not the “greatest pirate ever” we know from previous installments. That being said, the moment between him and Paul McCartney’s Uncle Jack is even better than you could have imagined.

The addition of Thwaites Kaya Scodelario, theoretically the future of the franchise, isn’t as devoid of chemistry as the tepid romance we were given in “On Stranger Tides.” The two make a fun bickering couple. Scodelario plays an astrologer who sports both brains and brawn. I’d be interested to see how they flesh her character out in future installments. Golshifteh Farahani steals the movie as a creepy witch, but her character exits the film far too soon, as does David Wenham’s Scarfield. Finally, Javier Bardem’s Salazar makes for a truly memorable and terrifying villain, injecting the dark and violent edge that had been missing from the franchise.

Characters in a “Pirates” movie are nothing without the action scenes they are thrown into, and “Dead Men Tell No Tales” has some really great set pieces. There’s a “heist gone wrong” scene early in the film that reintroduces Captain Jack in a humorous way, an exciting “guillotine execution gone wrong” scene featuring multiple levels of competently filmed and slickly edited chaos, and a chase scene in the film featuring undead sharks is unarguably a franchise highlight.

This is the second time that the “Pirates” franchise has advertised its latest movie as the final adventure. Given the way the story unfolds in “Dead Men Tell no Tales,” particularly an enticing post-credits tease, it’s clear that Disney fully intends to keep their swashbuckling franchise going as long as it keeps selling tickets. It’s a mixed bag, but an entertaining one nonetheless. If you’re a fan of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, you’ll find lots to love here. In a market saturated with superhero franchises (entertaining as they may be), why should we complain about more adventures with Captain Jack Sparrow?