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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KONG: SKULL ISLAND** Why? Why? Why? Oh Why?


THE CGI IS great. Or perhaps I should say, at least the CGI, led by veteran SFX veteran, Chris Brenczewski, is great. And a buff Tom Hiddleston tries hard (unconvincingly) to beef up his Bond credentials in this unnecessary, forgettable, often risible monster movie.

The fundamental problem with “Kong: Skull Island” is that though the director (Jordan Vogt-Roberts) assaults us with mega monsters, an ape the size of a ten story building, thunderous explosions and helicopters piloted by silly pilots who fly into certain death, he makes no attempt to build suspense, create interesting characters or even terrify us out of our wits. Perhaps, I am therefore concluded to suggest, all directors, or the producers who green-light monster productions like this, should be made to sit a written exam after studying the genius of Spielberg’s original “Jurassic Park.”

Now here’s a movie that fully shows up the awfulness of “Kong: Skull Island” when you remember all the magnificent touches it had that “Kong: Skull Island” is too lazy and too cynical to bother with. Remember the hold-your-breath tension when the two kids are in the kitchen hiding out from those toe-tapping velociraptors? No such tension here. Remember the multiple and very human relationships between the flawed adults and the kids…the greed (and wonderful cummupance) of the would-be thief? No such human-kind lives on this movie planet. Kong’s people are mainly gorilla food or very fast runners (with tight shirts), with a stock in trade bad guy (Samuel L. Jackson in full-bore cartoon role) and a pretty girl in a very tight top (Brie Larson really slumming it after “Room”). Remember Spielberg’s effort to lull our disbelief in the actual do-ability of recreating dinosaur DNA and the thoughtful sub-plot about not messing with nature? No such effort here. It’s a big ape living among big fantasy monsters. Take it or leave it.

So…it lacks tension, lacks scream out loud moments, lacks likable or evenly hisssssably nasty people and offers instead a storyline that shreds any semblance of logic…It lacks the pretence of making any sense. It seems that it’s also lacking a good return on the $325m it took to get it to our screens.

And all of that could have been avoided had director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (no past movies of any repute to mention) writers Dan Gillroy (“The Bourne Legacy”), Max Borenstein (“Godzilla”!), Derek Connolly (“Jurassic World”) and John Gattins (“Flight”) and the ten producers, taken the simple “Follow these Jurassic Park Rules” exam before cameras rolled and Tom was made to make such a fool of himself in public

 

KONG:SKULL ISLAND. Dir: Jordan Vogt-Roberts. With: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman. Cinematogapher: Larry Fong (“Batman v Superman”). Production Designer: Stefan Dechant (his first movie as head of production design). Special Effects set coordinator: Chris Brenczewski (“Jurassaic World” “Avengers Assemble”)

 

PATRIOTS DAY***Dumb Fun


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Peter Berg (“Deepwater Horizon”, “Lone Survivor”) does not fail to deliver. “Patriots Day”, another heart-stopping drama based on the very recent Boston marathon bombing, skillfully manages the delicate balance between the historical and the imagined, dramatized truth. Like his previous movie (“Deepwater…”), also with blue-collar everyman, Mark Wahlberg, “Patriots Day” plunges us into the bloody, chaotic, confusing, tense week during which two young jihadists bombed the marathon, and for days eluded their pursuers. Berg’s recreation of the marathon and those agonizing moments leading up to the explosions with the resulting, tangibly real, carnage is superb.

The story is mainly seen through the eyes of Tommy Saunders, a popular cop (Wahlberg, basically reprising his role from “Deepwater…”) who has been temporarily downgraded from a suit-wearing detective to a uniformed policeman on the beat. This is a nifty plot device: it allows the viewer, through our man of the people to be with the people when the bombs go off; but it also allows him to offer up the kind of street smart smarts that you’d expect a smart detective to have. And here we must pause to commend the Peter Berg/Mark Wahlberg reincarnation of the Wahlberg type. He’s a pre-Trump American patriot ideal: protectively strong (“Boston strong” as the movie suggests), but also uber sensitive; the new macho metrosexual type…the type who, having seen all the blood and shattered limbs, breaks down in tears (and needing the loving consolation of his devoted wife). It also gives his character the permission to mouth Berg’s shoe-horned sentiment about love winning the war against hate, yadda yadda (notice I said, pre-Trump). But, fear not, he’s also the relentless terminator, who won’t rest until the job is done.
Fortunately, the proceedings unfold through the eyes of multiple other parties (most of whom are ‘real’ people). So, in the timeless trope of disaster movies, we meet the many characters whose lives will be forever changed by the attack: the loving couple, the earnest young Chinese entrepreneur, the jolly father wheeling his infant toddler to be part of the buoyant crowd, the stolid local sheriff etc.

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We also see the story through the eyes of the two young bombers (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze) and a wife. But this is a story about right v wrong, good v bad, American can-do spirit against the forces of evil. Even the FBI agent (Kevin Bacon) is mainly a good guy. So whereas all the -ordinary- folks we meet are all VERY good and decent, innocent people, the bombers are all-round bad guys. What would drive two young (almost all-American) guys, one a father, to execute so heinous a crime? That’s waaaay outside the philosophical purview of Berg’s story of love’s ultimate victory against hate.

“Patriots Day” is in the end therefore an uncomplicated, somewhat mindless, but viscerally exciting piece of movie making. The action feels real. The dialogue (Peter Berg plus about five others) feels believable. We feel for the (one dimensional) people. The fabulously orchestrated moments of tension (with Trent Reznor’s excellent soundtrack) feel nerve racking. And, having myself been in New York during 9-11, the spirit of community and solidarity feels spot on.

But it’s a populist piece that seeks no greater aim than the thrill of catharsis. The need to ask and answer those fundamental questions about human behavior, about what drives the savage heart (the role of art?) are not to be found here.

And these days, you won’t find them in the White House either

 

PATRIOTS DAY. Dir: Peter Berg. With: Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Monaghan, J.K.Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon. Music: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; Cinematographer: Tobias A. Schliessler (“Lone Survivor”); Production design: Tom Duffield (“Hell or High Water”)

 

 

Movies: FLIGHT


I’D EXPECTED THE same old, same old from Denzel in this his latest offering, “Flight”. But I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t “Unstoppable” or “The Taking of Pelham 123” on a ‘plane. You know, the ordinary, somewhat flawed man who rises to a moment of supreme heroism (with an accompanying triumphant score).

Yes, he did manage to do what no-one else could possibly do (way upping the triumph of landing an aircraft on the Hudson) by averting a sure-fire crash by flying upside down, averting hitting a densely populated area, and crash landing on a nearby field, thereby saving 96 of the 102 passengers and crew.

Problem was, he was drunk and high.

It’s a film about addiction.

Denzel’s character, Whip Whitaker is a smooth talking dashing hunk of a captain (he’s getting jowly, but still looking good) who just happens to be a chain smoking, coke snorting, bourbon drinking wreck. He’s alienated his family and as the story unfolds, alienates his close friends and eventually his (ex-addict) lover (the English actor, Kelly Reilly).

Director Robert Zemeckis, who has certainly brought us some gems – all the “Back to the Future” movies and the eminently watchable “Castaway” – isn’t one to offer up too much nuance. Captain Whip’s addiction is a sort of alcoholic’s anonymous “how to” guide. First acknowledge that you’re an alcoholic; then hit rock bottom…only then can you begin to get back on the road to salvation. Whip lies to himself, lies to others and just can’t beat the addiction even as others around him (including a phoned-in performance by Don Cheadle as a company lawyer) try to protect him.

Zemeckis offers us a (somewhat specious) theme of deconstructing and finding what’s true. Is the truth the fact that he saved pretty much everyone’s life through his heroics or is the truth the fact of his addiction? How do you balance those truths, even as it’s up to Whip to face his own truth.

And face it he does in a moment of pure Hollywood drama.

Denzil is one of those actors who always manage to suggest that there’s an underlying decency in his broken characters, struggling to emerge into the sunlight (which thankfully stayed submerged in “Training Day”). It’s what keeps you on the character’s side, even as he’s pissing off everyone else.

And, despite its obvious Hollywood-ness, it’s what makes “Flight” a supremely watchable film. Indeed, like any flight you’ve ever taken, you know exactly where it’s heading. And getting there is a pleasant enough journey.

Look out for John Goodman in it – he revels in the roll of the good-time drug dealer. Whenever the movie dips, he brings it back, you could say, high.