ATOMIC BLONDE** Sub atomic


I’M SURE THERE’S a collective noun for clichés: “ A lobotomy of clichés”? “A cop-out of clichés”? “A don’t-waste-your-money of clichés”? Who knows. But if you’re looking for said clichés, “Atomic Blonde” is the movie to see. The story line is built around the premise that the uber secret list of MI6 and CIA agents has been stolen (Probably the same list stolen in “Mission Impossible I” and stolen again in “Skyfall”). It’s a period, Cold War, piece set at around the time of the destruction of the Berlin Wall (with sets left over from “Bridge of Spies”). Sexy (very) super agent Lorraine Broughton is sent to West Berlin to make contact with fellow agent David Percival (An eyes-rolling, neck-bulging, head-twitching James McAvoy imitating what a rogue agent might look like) to get back the list. All the typical – and expendable – thuggish types are here. And of course, people meet in strobe flashing, techno-thumping clubs where lithe semi nude women writhe around.

There will be blood.

This is John le Carré by way of a self consciously stylish Vogue fashion shoot, repurposed as a video game.

Just say noir.

That said, there are a few highlights: Director David Leitch’s fight scenes (one executed in what seems like an extended single-frame shot) are tremendous. They’re bloody and brutal and have the rapid action bone crunching grittiness of the best of Bourne. And not surprisingly, Leitch was the stunt coordinator on movies like the “Bourne’s” “Wolverine” etc. It’s as though all the staggering silliness of the plot with its multiple double crosses, is just so much foreplay for the fights. And there are many.

The other highlight is Charlize Theron. Here she channels her “Mad Max” mojo to great effect, dominates the movie and even manages to transcend a mindless script. Had it not been for her, this enterprise could well have been simply laughed off the screen. Theron is a tall woman and an absolutely convincing fighter. There’s no feeling of pretense. She’s also naked a lot. Which I’m sure is not at all gratuitous; simply the director’s desire to involve the audience’s empathy with her poor bruised body. Whatever. She’s definitely a highlight.

But in the end, despite her valiant effort and towering presence, “Atomic Blonde” can’t escape the limitations of its confused story, bad writing (from the eloquent pen who brought us “300”), and the absence of anyone resembling a real person. Maybe it’ll all come together in “Atomic Blonde II”.

But I won’t be there to find out

 

ATOMIC BLONDE. Dir: David Leitch. With: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Eddie Marsan. Written by: Kurt Johnstad (“300 Rise of an Empire”, “300”) adapted from the graphic novels, “The Coldest City”. Production Design: David Scheunemann

 

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THE BIG SICK*** Charming


THE BIG SICK is a radical departure from the typical rom-com format. It’s actually smart. It feels honest, is often quite funny and the man isn’t depicted as a man-boy asshole. It’s based on the true story of a struggling Chicago stand up comic (Kimail Nanjiani as himself), whose day time job is driving a taxi, who falls in love with a heckler, Emily, (Zoe Kazan) at one of his shows. There are two complications. Firstly he’s Pakistani from a very traditional family (just a shade away from cliche), intent on arranging his marriage (to a nice Muslim Pakistani girl). And secondly, having whimped out and chosen tradition over love…parents over passion, his (now ex) girlfriend, Emily, succumbs to a life threatening illness resulting in a medically induced coma.

The arc of the story follows Nanjain’s initially forced, and eventually easy intimacy with her fraught and squabbling parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) as she lies in life support in a hospital; and his emergence from a life of hypocritical, dishonest duty – both to his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) and to a dull imitative comedy style – to one of honesty and self assertion (while just about managing to avoid degenerating into a clichéd tale where “honesty is the best policy”)

There’s a vaguely sketched idea about the mutual distrust that exists between people of different cultural backgrounds; both sets of patents are small minded and wary of ‘the other’. But Kimail’s authorial voice is never cynical or patronizing. The result is a gentle, genial (if not laugh out loud) humor.

Kimail, I guess following the Woody Allen example, plays himself in the movie…which certainly gives his character a feeling of idiosyncratic ‘realness’. But he’s (and co-writer Emily Gordon) are better writers than he is an actor. His is bland dead pan style probably works well in stand up, but in this dramatic context, it kills a good many of his really funny lines. Zoe Kazan on the other hand is a bubbly, engaging presence and a great counterpoint to Nanjain’s low keyed style.

It’ll be interesting to see where Nanjain goes next. Because the story is so autobiographical, the danger is that he’ll follow the route of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and churn out “The Bigger Sick”. Or, we can but hope, he’ll segue into a writer who, despite the backing of Judd Apatow, can turn his funny observing eye into something that resembles fresh, intelligent, not (the typical) dumbed down frat house American humor.

 

THE BIG SICK, Dir: Michael Showalter (“Hello, My Name is Doris”). Writers: Emily V Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. With: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan (“Our Brand is Crisis”, “In Your Eyes”), Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher(“Silver Linings Playbook”. Cinematographer: Brian Burgoyne (manly TV series and sit coms)

 

 

DUNKIRK***** Tour de Force


THIS IS A fabulous, tour de force piece of film making: Director Christopher Nolan’s decision to fragment the time frame into three interweaving narrative segments spread over an hour, a day and a few days allows him to offer us the full, agonizing human intensity of the battle from both an intimate, micro scale and also from the broader, sweeping panorama of the action. He -mercifully- spares us the, usual, porn of bloody intestines, without for a moment compromising on the visceral horror (sometimes you just have to duck as the German bombers swoop down) of what was happening.

The movie’s focus is of course centered on the Allies’ inglorious retreat from the German onslaught, when over four hundred thousand soldiers were trapped on a beach, hemmed in on all sides, battered on the land, in the air and at sea…and with no means of escape. The movie drops the viewer immediately into a world of anonymous soldiers, running, scampering here and there, dying like ants; a dark choreography of death quickened by Hans Zimmer’s strong, atonal score.

Nolan builds his picture…of desperation, fear, resilience, failure and, ultimately, and barely there, of heroism…by focusing in on the small details; those easy to miss nuggets of observation. One minute we’re there with the retreating soldiers, deafened by the noise of the screams, the bombardment, then, in silence, we’re underwater, struggling for air; and the next, we’re the detached observers with a disinterested view of all that’s happening. We see a man trying to squeeze water out of a dry hose, a defeated officer calmly walking out into the dark embrace of the cold sea, a soldier under fire, desperate to take a shit, a Spitfire crash-landed on a beach and then set alight (hope vanishing in a cloud of thick smoke).

It’s an impressionist canvas where meaning emerges through a layering of images.

The story, in as much as there is one, pulls you into the hand-trembling terror of the escape – the need to save yourself at any cost – from these series of small moments. Initially we’re with two desperate young soldiers, (Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard), who pretend to be part of an emergency evacuation crew ‘armed’ with an dead soldier on a stretcher. They muscle their way on board a hospital boat. In another time frame, a rescued half-drowned soldier (Cillian Murphy) panics at the thought of being dragged back toward the shore. He lashes out and inadvertently kills one of his rescuers. Cowed men hide in a beached vessel which soon becomes a death trap from unrelenting hull-piercing German target practice.

And balanced against this debacle of flight is the refusal to give in, by those brave souls who go the other way: into the line of fire. Nolan focuses on three people (icons really, as he – deliberately – shies away from character development): Mark Rylance is an aging sea captain (part of the civilian flotilla dragooned into an ad hoc rescue operation) who heads out to sea himself with his young sons, rather than give up his boat to the navy. A squadron of Spitfires, all three of them, (led by Tom Hardy) take the battle to the Germans even as their limited gas tanks run dry. An officer in charge (Kenneth Branagh) stays with his men and refuses to make an escape.

Most of the time there’s no dialogue. Nolan lets his images do the talking… from which two powerful themes emerge: one examines the idea of (real, not super-hero) heroism. Even if the story’s only acknowledged hero (in as much as there’s a short note in a local newspaper) is ironically the young man killed by accident, the civilian sailors in their fishing boats and pleasure craft who braved the German torpedoes, the outgunned Spitfire pilots, the lone officer, steadfast in his refusal to be cowed, all emerge as quiet, modest and ultimately unheralded icons of true heroism.

What emerges as well is an old fashioned, uncynical sense of British ‘character’. For though there’s no proselytizing or jingoism, the stoic sense of duty, of “…fighting on the beaches etc” (Churchill’s presence hovers somewhere in the background, but it’s a subtle, minimal presence and seems to be more a description of intent than an exhortation) of defending the motherland at all cost is strongly there. Perhaps Nolan is suggesting that these twin virtues: down to earth, contained heroism and a resilience of character are what persevered in the face of the Nazi onslaught.

And as Britain prepares for another inglorious retreat from Europe, the country will certainly need these virtues, long vanished from the political class, once more.

 

DUNKIRK. Dir: Christopher Nolan (also written by). With: Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh. Music: Hans Zimmer. . Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Spectre”. “Interstellar”)

 

THE BEGUILED** Dull


IT’S A SOUTHERN Gothic drama (brilliantly directed fourty years ago by Don Siegel with Clint Eastwood in the lead) that holds great promise: set in the Deep South during the American civil war, a wounded Yankee soldier has been separated from his platoon and is discovered, barely alive, by a young girl. She’s a pupil of a genteel Ladies’ boarding school, ensconced somewhere in the woods of rural Mississippi. And so, having taken pity on him, into this oasis of starched, vestal purity, comes this predatory man… a Northerner in a Confederate world; a wolf among sheep.

His recumbent, half naked sexuality and his aura of danger and the forbidden, lights the spark of desire in the breasts of his tightly laced, repressed rescuers. These souls of girlish purity long for the taint of his corruption; and become beguiled by his rakish ways. Until jealousy, armed with an adze of amputation has its way with him.

It would seem though from this anemic, insipid interpretation that director Sofia Coppola (“Marie Antoinette”) is having none of that. None of the raw, untamable passions of writer Thomas Cullinan’s novel. None of the sly seductions as Corporal McBurney (a dull as dishwater Colin Farrell, who seems to have grown out of his youthful bad boy charisma) samples the morsels of innocence. The central theme of “passion constrained” has been neutered of its sexuality and reframed as a carefully, meticulously storyboarded, bloodless lecture on deception and empowerment.

As the school’s headmistress, Miss Farnsworth, Coppola laces up the icy sexiness of Nicole Kidman so tightly that all we’re left with is the ice. There is no chemistry between her and Farrell. Nor for that matter is there much chemistry between Farrell and any of the other ‘objects of desire’ in Miss Farnsworth’s seminary (Kristen Dunst and Elle Fanning). It’s as though each of them were shot separately against blue screen and edited together in the final mix, the way they edit the voices in animated movies.

It is interesting to compare the female’s (Coppola’s) take on the story with the male’s (Siegel’s.) For Siegel, the Corporal’s symbolic emasculation and fatal comeuppance (that look of shock on Clint Eastwood’s face as he realizes the truth) was one of shuddering horror. For Coppola, it is one of moral triumph.

They’re both valid interpretations. But Siegel’s “horror” bristled with emotion; Coppola’s moral triumph fails to get the heart beating. That said, kudos to Ms. Coppola: many of the crew (production designer, editor, composers etc are women). And that’s an all too rare thing.

 

THE BEGUILED. Dir: Sofia Coppola. With Nicole Kidman, Kristen Dunst, Elle Fanning and Colin Farrell. Screenplay: Sofia Coppola (adapting Albert Maltz’ screenplay from the book by Thomas Cullinan). Cinematographer: Phillippe Le Sourd (“Seven Pounds”). Production Designer: Anne Ross (“Going in Style”)

 

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES**** Outstanding


AFTER THE DREARY second ‘chapter’ of the (new) Planet of the Apes franchise (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”), “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a tremendous movie. It’s thoughtful, gripping, brilliantly acted and the quality of the CGI is unsurpassed.

Though it starts in a fairly typical action movie mode – guns a blazing, apes and soldiers dying in abundant heaps etc. – it soon morphs (after the capture by the apes of a few, defeated, soldiers) into a compelling drama.

It’s been fifteen years since the dawn of the Simian flu, which has resulted in a decimation of the human race and the flowering of simian intellect. The ape leader, Caesar (convincingly embodied by Andy Serkis…the genius who gave us Golum) is keen to avoid war and the ongoing skirmishes with humans. His plans are, like Moses, to lead his beleaguered tribe out of this Pharaonic war zone to a promised land, way over yonder, past an impassible (to humans) desert. This is the first of multiple Biblical and Greek mythological references (There’s even a frightening Red Sea moment when, like Ramses’ armies, Caesar’s tormentors are drowned in a deluge of snow and ice).

But his bête noir, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), the bald, buff, increasingly deranged Kurtz- like leader of a Nazi-esque troop of rogue mercenaries, is intent on enslaving the apes (“They’re almost human” one of his mercenaries says…in an echo of the Christian apologia for slavery) before wiping them out. The Uncle Toms of this brave new world are turncoat apes, called Donkeys. They’ve turned against their own to save their own skins and will perform any task no matter how demeaning.

The story twists and turns (including a thrilling “Great Escape” segment, as the apes tunnel through forgotten caverns in the quiet dark of the night) as it explores themes of slavery and freedom, mercy and vengeance, heroism and sacrifice.

And it all hangs around the grand, epic character of Caesar as he faces a personal challenge deeper than that of the Colonel’s mercenaries: his desire for vengeance. His people need the calm command of his leadership; but his dark, brooding heart drives him away from the leader’s responsibility as the protector of his clan to the hunter’s lonely quest to kill and destroy. His drive to survive long enough to rid the world of the Colonel is fueled by pure unbridled hate. (I am reminded by the exchange between Quintus Arrius – Jack Hawkins – and Judah Ben Hur – Charlton Heston – in “Ben Hur”. “You are full of hate,” Quintus tells Ben Hur. “That is good. Hate can keep a man alive”)

But in the end, it is the touching generosity of a young, mute girl (Amiah Miller), and a Messianic survival of crucifixion, that soothes the savage beast within. Spartacus turns into Henry V. Or maybe Christ. Hate, tenderness, rage, sorrow, joy. The little miracle of director Matt Reeves’ movie (he also co-wrote it) is how clearly these emotions play across Serkis’ ape visage. You feel for him in ways way beyond the faux emotions of the summertime blockbusters. Here on a planet of apes is the crisis of modern humanity writ large.

Reeves’ noble and very iconic vision (Imagine rows of crucified apes dying in their own Appian Way or chained, slave-whipped apes brutalized by their heartless overlords) is well served by the dark, atmospheric cinematography of Michael Seresin (“Dawn of the Planet…”, “Midnight Express”) and James Chinlund’s (“Dawn…, “Avengers Assemble”) convincing post apocalyptic world.

What a surprise to find such a gem among this year’s even more mindless blockbusters: “The Transformers”, “The Mummy”, “Alien: Covenant”, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Guardians of the Galaxy. Vol2”.

 

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Dir: Matt Reeves. Writers: Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback (“Insurgent”, “Wolverine”). With: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller. Cinematpgraphy: Michael Seresin. Production Design: James Chilund. Music: Michael Giacchino (“Star Trek Beyond”)

 

BABY DRIVER*** High Octane


 

“Baby Driver” is a charming, amped up, non stop, music thumping, machine gun syncopating gangster, heist, rom-com, wanna be Bonnie and Clyde, kinetic explosion, sort of movie.

There’s a vague plot about a jive walking, withdrawn, tinnitus plagued youth – his “real” name is Baby- who’s forced into a life of crime (He’s the getaway car driver) as re-payment to a debt he owes to a soft-spoken crime kingpin (Kevin Spacey oozing avuncular menace). He falls for Debora (lily James from “Downtown Abbey”), a waitress in a diner –  an icon of guileless sweetness; a shining light in his dark violent life – and their grand, existential plan is to high tail it outta town…to anyplace that’s not “here”.

Baby seeks to drown out the tinnitus from which he suffers (the result of a car crash, fatal to his arguing parents) with a steady, carefully curated music mix; a beat that locks him away from his gangster surroundings and drives the rhythm of his life… as well as the tempo of the movie.

Director-writer Edgar Wright is mapping out an interesting space for himself in the Tarantino dominated world of pulp-fiction moviemaking. His previous movies, “Hot Fuzz” and “Dawn of the Dead” seamlessly morph into “Baby Driver”. These movies all take their cue from well-seeded movie tropes: the zombie movie, the cop movie and now the car chase/heist movie. Hs talent is to then turn clichéd convention on its head. The result are movies that are both pastiches of movie conventions as well as (his) launching pads. This is the heist movie as music video on steroids (with a riotous nod to the grisly killings you expect from the “Final Destination” franchise)

His cast of characters – all badass gangsta types (played without much humor in the “Fast and Furious” money spinners) – are all slightly crazier versions of a type…as if to draw attention to the silliness of the type, even while revelling in the silliness. The stand-out bad guy by far, from whom Baby must escape, is Buddy. This is John Hamm with a bad haircut and a Terminator’s refusal to stay dead. If ever he had to kill off his suave Don Draper character, “Baby Driver” delivers in spades.

The movie revolves around and dances to the beat of Ansel Elgort (from the vapid “The Fault is in Our Stars”) as Baby. He’s tremendous: a lithe, rhythmic presence, whose expressionless almost autistic look masks an unflinching determination and an ability to elude the tall shadows cast by his fellow powerhouse actors: Spacey and Jamie Fox.

Edgar Wright (who also wrote the funny script for “Ant Man” and Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin”) is a tremendous movie-maker: the breathtaking stunts, the whiplash editing and the good natured energy of the whole enterprise make for great fun.

Though I do admit, the five-star reviews and the suite of accolades the movie garnered, prepared me for something different and lead to some disappointment. Some of Tarantino’s movies are themselves five-star worthy…because they frame the experiences – of slavery, of naziism – through a lens of real insight and rich thematic seriousness…all as part of the gungo-ho carnage that mark his oeuvre.

“Baby Driver” certainly has a fresh distinctiveness to its style; and it’s endearingly engaging.
But it’s nothing more than that.

High craft, yes. High art, no.

 

BABY DRIVER. Dir: Edgar Wright. With: Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx. Cinematographer: Bill Pope (“The Jungle Book”) Editors: Jonathan Amos (“A United Kingdom”) and Paul Machliss (“The World’s End”)

 

MY COUSIN RACHEL****Did She or Didn’t She?


“My Cousin Rachel” is Roger Mitchell’s uneven adaptation (veering between sluggish cautious restraint and gripping story telling) of the book by Daphne du Maurier. At its heart, this is a story about cultural blindness…about our inability to see beyond the locked box of our inherited values. Set in mid nineteenth century England, the drama is centered around the arrival of the eponymous cousin Rachel – an exotic, beautiful and mysterious Anglo-Italian widow – into a small, very traditional farming community.

Just who is this Rachel? Grieving widow -as she appears to be – or calculating, possibly murderous, fortune seeker – as she is made out to be? We meet her via the letters of a wealthy English landowner and die-hard bachelor, Ambrose Ashley (Sam Calflin of “The Hunger Games”). He has fled the cold (read: inhibited) country for the sultrier, healthier clime of Italy. His letters describe the arc of his relationship with this mystery woman: first as charming friend, then beloved wife, then suspicious partner who may be poisoning him. Which is she? Could she really be poisoning him or is this merely the expression of a deranged mind, warped by the tumour that kills him?

Ambrose’s young, gormless nephew, Philip (also played by Sam Calflin) who will inherit his properties when he turns twenty five, is convinced that his uncle has been murdered by her. His guardian, Nick (Iain Glenn, who you’ll know as Jorah Mormon from “The Game of Thrones”) has also heard things: her profligacy, her sexual appetites. When she turns up at the ancestral estate (she claims it is to experience the presence of her deceased husband), her veiled countenance and enigmatic smile offer nothing to her suspicious hosts. Young Philip is determined to lift what is clearly the veil of her guilt.

In a world where the women are either dowdy or delicately virginal and certainly entirely submissive, can you really trust someone as darkly beautiful, experienced and self-possessed as Rachel? And a foreigner to boot! She must be harbouring secrets. Just who is the Italian gentleman that visits her? A lover? To whom is she sending such large sums of money, well exceeding the modest income she is given?

Bit by bit he is bitten by her bewitching charm. She is the unexpected antidote to his buttoned up word. She is the dark to his light, the experience to his innocence, the possibility of passion to his sense of restraint, the smell of sex to the stuffiness of his virginity, the maturity to his naïveté. Surely she cannot be the witch some (no longer him) make her out to be. Not surprisingly, he loses his heart to her; and in a spasm of infantile infatuation, he wills her his wealth… in exchange for her hand. She offers him instead her body. It is a signal he misreads. What for her is a repayment for generosity, he mistakes for love.

She, of course, is no naïf. He may have misread her intent. But that could not have been a surprise to her. For what’s a woman without fortune to do in a society stacked against such a creature? She can teach or become a governess or, again, seek to marry well.

In the end, her attractiveness to Philip lies as much in her – to him incomprehensible- “otherness” as in her brooding sensuality. He is after all, no more than a horny boy.

At a deeper level, the story wonders what it takes for one cultural frame of reference (the English farming community) to fully appreciate and align with another’s (that of the sophisticated Italian). For on the flip side of exotic attraction lies a world of misunderstanding (and suspicion). And by the time his own veil of ignorance has been lifted and he comes to his senses, Philip has put in play a sequence of events that will eventually prove fatal.

That beautiful English countryside, like its inhabitants, becomes a place of hidden malevolence that must protect itself against the antibodies that would do it harm.

This is Rachel Weisz’ movie. She is its magnetic presence: quiet, understated, ultimately mysterious. We are as seduced by her even as we remain in doubt as to her real intentions. She personifies ambiguity. This is certainly proving to be Ms Weisz’ time: coming so soon after the magnificent “Denial” and “The Light Between Oceans”. Perhaps, just perhaps, Hollywood is becoming French in its appreciation of women of a certain age (After all, Ms Weisz, Nicole Kidman, Isabel Huppert, Laura Dern, Halle Berry, Meryl Streep, Diane Lane, Robin Wright etc have all turned 50; and they’re all getting great roles…well overshadowing the superhero-chained pufferies of Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence etc)

Roger Mitchell (“Notting Hill”) both adapted and directed the movie…which could have been outstanding; but he seems so cautious of excess that there is often a slow stateliness to the directing where you wish there were more raw energy.

No matter. Rachel more than compensates for his stately restraint.

 

MY COUSIN RACHEL. Dir: Ropger Mitchell. With: Rachel Weisz, Sam Calflin, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger. Cinematographer: Mike Eley ( (“Marley”). Production Designer: Alice Normington (“Suffragette”)