Atomic Blonde

Set in 1989 as the Berlin Wall is about to come down, “Atomic Blonde” is a Cold War Spy thriller with a kick. The twist is that instead of James Bond we have Jane Bond, so all those people who have made that casting suggestion to EON Productions can now all cool their jets. Director David Leitch comes off of a long career as a stunt coordinator and he previously was an uncredited director of “John Wick“. He clearly has an eye for action scenes and stages some brutal fights for star Charlize Theron to kick ass through. From a shoot em up perspective, this is a fairly successful film. However, as a spy thriller with delusions of franchisehood,  it leaves a bit to be desired.

Let me give you a little background on the literary character of James Bond as a prelude to discussing Lorraine Broughton, the English spy played by Theron. After Ian Fleming died, the literary 007 lay fallow for a few years. there were attempts to revive the series in the late sixties and seventies, but they never paid off. Sometime during the 80s, the publishers got their crap together and found a new author to pen Bond novels for several years. John Gardner had success in this field on his own, but the Bond Franchise would certainly be a jewel in his crown if it succeeded. Gardner wrote a more than a dozen Bond adventures, but he had too obvious a formula after a while. Inevitably there would be a double cross by one of the characters and occasionally there would be a triple cross. That is what is happening in this film. Double and triple crosses, however without the clarity of a narrative context. In other words, these things just happen out of the blue without much set up and certainly no trail that would allow an audience to participate in the process. Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman made it work in “No Way Out” because there was a ticking clock, and mixed motives that distracted us. “Atomic Blonde” doesn’t bother to clarify anything. The end of the movie is a head scratcher and I was able to make sense of the first “Mission Impossible” film.

James McAvoy is the suspected double and at the end of the story, you need to be able to clarify why he has acted in the manner that he did. It’s almost impossible to explain because it makes no sense. We know he fits a particular type but we are not clear on his motives or why any of this had to go down the way it did. The film is structured like a police procedural, where the suspect is telling a story that we get to see, but it it interrupted by side tracks and events that the subject would not have been aware of. “The Usual Suspects” made an effort to tie things together with bits of information in the background of the interrogation, this film does no such thing. So watch this for the action and style and forget about trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

Theron is ice cold as a blonde killing machine, and she plays the part of a spy being debriefed with the right amount of frustration with her superiors. Toby Jones is the MI-6 section supervisor who cross examines her and they have a couple of nice testy moments. John Goodman is a CIA advisor that she is reluctant to speak in front of, but we don’t know why until the end of the film. It also makes no sense but at least it counteracts the bad taste that another twist was going to leave in our mouths. Sophia Botella was in “The Mummy” earlier this summer and in “Star Trek Beyond” last summer. She gives a solid performance as a French operative in over her head, and interestingly as a romantic interest for Theron, even though her part is mostly meaningless. Between Theron and Botella, fishnet clothing may end up in short supply in the European markets.

The look of the film is good and the style choices for the lead are interesting. I appreciated that when a character had been in a fight, that there were signs that a fight had taken place. The degree of punishment for the fight participants, whether winner or loser, is never quite believable because it is so over the top, but I suppose that is what makes it a fantasy spy film rather than a leCarre’ story. It is a cool film, but not as cool as you want it to be given the trailers. Once again, all the best stuff is in the ads and there is not enough saved for the film.

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A Ghost Story (2017)

 

If you watch the trailer for this film, you will not be expecting a horror movie. The tone of the preview clearly outlines that this is a meditative film about the afterlife and not a Halloween fright flick. The impression the ad leaves you with is that this movie is going to contemplate the emotions of grief and loneliness. It turns out however, to have bigger things on it’s mind, although what those things are is not entirely clear to me. The tagline on the poster says “It’s all about time.” So if you are in the mood for a slow moving, abstract story about the metaphysics of death, her it is.

The above introduction might give the impression that I did not like the film. On the contrary, there are a number of things that the film does that are intriguing and thoughtful. Writer/Director David Lowery clearly has things on his mind, but he is taking his time getting them into ours. I thought the film he made last year, the re-imagining of “Pete’s Dragon“, was wonderful. There are quiet moments of beauty that get lingered over and many shots are clearly carefully composed. The reservation I have is that the point of it all is more opaque as the film goes along. The mediation of grief is one of the shortest elements of the film. The widow is shown in despair and coping in very mundane ways. Her story though disappears halfway through the film. At one point the “Ghost” in the story essentially commits suicide. Yeah, I know that does not make much sense but none of this is supposed to be taken literally, my hesitation is that It’s not very focused on how we should try to digest it. The turn involves a switch in time, from the future to a past maybe a century earlier. When the past starts to replay itself, I guess we are to see existence as an infinity mirror. The closest we get to any explanation of why is the pontification of a beer guzzling philosopher at a house party that the “Ghost” lingers through.

 

The deliberate pacing worked for some scenes but in others I found it very off putting. Two examples can help illustrate. First, when the couple featured in the story first hear a sound in the middle of the night, after they check for it’s source and return to bed, they cling to each other very intimately. It’s not a sex scene or any kind of exposition, it is just a few moments of silent hugging, kissing and nuzzling, much as any couple might engage in when both are awake and want the other to know that they care.  It goes on for a few minutes but it leads to nowhere. As a character moment I think it tells us something about their relationship that we might not have know. The second extended scene involves the widow, sitting on the kitchen floor, alone, eating a pie. We see every bite and the mucus dripping from her nose as she is grieving, but it is all too much and too long. Lowey is making a film where the camera rarely moves. The shots are static because that’s the way he wants us to perceive time. Unfortunately it also tries our patience when it happens repeatedly.

This year’s Academy Award winning actor, is the star of the film, but he appears in maybe five to ten minutes of the film. Casey Affleck is fine in those scenes, but there is nothing to suggest that the spirit, embodied by a hospital bed sheet, is in any way the actor we know. The performance that dominates the movie is a pantomime by an image of a child’s version of a ghost. This is the accomplishment of the director and not the actor. I doubt that Affleck stayed on set to sit under a sheet and not move for long stretches of time. Jack Nicholson famously told Michael Keaton when they made “Batman” to let the costume do the acting. That is exactly what happens here. Rooney Mara fares a little better but her part is also almost without dialogue. The way in which she is displayed sitting on the bed or the floor, or looking out a window, is all a directors choice and it largely works. The two leads have faces that are not used very vividly in the movie, and the rest of them is minimal as well.

I suspect that this experimental type film will be attractive to fans of existentialism. I prefer narrative and character, but I was intrigued by the ideas in the film, at least up to the point where the issue of the infinite became the focus. This is going to be one of those films that when written about, says more about the reviewer than anything else. I hope this commentary does not make me appear to be too shallow, but I do want to appear to be honest. I sort of liked it, but I was also irritated at times. Frankly, you will have to make up your own mind.