Friday, July 28, 2017


I like imagining Charlize Theron saw 2014’s slick, cool, expertly choreographed Keanu Reeves actioner John Wick and thought to herself, “I gotta get me one of these.” And get it she did. From that film’s stuntman co-director David Leitch comes Atomic Blonde, a stylish, knotty last-dregs-of-the-Cold-War thriller set against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall’s fall. German unrest is at a head, and into this mess strides Theron as an ice-cold, hyper-competent, platinum blonde secret agent who must plunge ahead into one last mission tangled up in Stasi, Soviet, French, British, and American spies fighting (and double-triple-quadruple-crossing each other) over a MacGuffin. There’s a potential defector and a list of undercover identities in the mix, and all the combatants want them for one reason or another. But is there any doubt it’s Theron who will emerge victorious? She has all the right moves. The movie is told largely in flashback. It opens with Theron’s pulling her naked body out of an ice bath, showing painful cuts and bruises dappling her skin. After dressing for her day, she smolders into a debriefing room where Toby Jones and John Goodman eye her suspiciously and ask her to explain what went down in Berlin. She proceeds to spin the tale – of seduction, sabotage, secrets, and surveillance accounting for each and every injury. It’s hard to keep track of the ins and outs of the byzantine plotting – at once pulp simple and complicated – but with Theron in the center of it all, our sympathies and source of awe are never in doubt.

Grooving on a frosted palate and the smooth New Wave cuts pulsating on the soundtrack, the film keeps its intoxicating placid cool. Leitch glides the proceedings easily through the complications of spycraft genre conventions – moles, listening devices, traitors, hookups – enumerated by the screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (300 and its superior sequel) from the comic book The Coldest City. It’s stock stuff, but elevated to pulpy pop art by its sleek exuberance, and by Theron’s fierce, believably outlandish performance – solid and steady, a human terminator who takes a beating and keeps going. Leitch has the good sense to center her in the telling and the frame, finding supreme entertainment even in the way she walks across a tarmac or slips into the back of a car. This is a woman who always knows exactly what she’s doing, how she’s carrying herself, and what to do to prepare to beat down any attackers. The variety of action – held in steady shots lovingly revealing the whole-body choreography from multiple combatants – is thrilling. She fights off two men from inside a speeding car armed only with a sharp red high heel. She grabs a length of garden hose to fend off assailants in a grubby apartment. In the film’s highlight, she goes up an elevator and down a staircase, in and out of a bunch of rooms along the way, punching, kicking, slapping, stabbing, and shooting a handful of formidable villains. By the time she and the last man standing are breathing heavy, bleeding from multiple wounds, and clutching throbbing muscles, staggering as they attempt to regain their balance, you’d think the fight is done. But there’s still a chase sequence to come.

Mostly a short and sweet genre riff done up in pleasing period burlesque and oozing casually ostentatious style in every frame, Atomic Blonde is committed to serving up memorable action beats. It takes what could be a hackneyed, played-out, half-comprehensible plot in more lugubrious, self-serious hands and just digs into its improbabilities as a clothesline for its visual tricks and exquisite action. Theron is the capital-S star, and she’s surrounded by dependable actors (James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Bill Skarsgard) doing what they do best. It fills the downtime with enough eccentric flavoring without overpowering what Theron’s doing at center stage. Everyone’s just a piece of the puzzle – a cog in a conspiracy, obstacle to be run over, asset worth flipping or deceiving. Besides, it’s all about the sheer pleasure of the film’s posing and posturing. It’s in a gleaming pair of sunglasses, a shock of neon, a white trench coat, a car sailing backwards through a busy intersection, a seductive French photographer, a wily watch salesman, a wall standing ominously dangerous (for the last time) in the center of town. It’s in the thwack of a blow connecting, the snap of a sniper’s gun, the blast of pop from a car stereo, the crunch of boots in the snow. The movie’s pleasures are exactly this simple and surface and satisfying.

Saturday, July 22, 2017


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets blasts off with more invention in one sequence than many blockbusters manage in their entire runtime. So chockablock with dazzling gee-whiz whiz-bang sci-fi detail and swooping techno-swashbuckling space opera derring-do, it’s an overload of pulp eye candy. Spaceships soar through the skies, asteroids pelt planets, energy pulses from being to being, viewscreens and robots light up with commands, a multitude of creatures jostle side by side in a universe cascading every direction in and out of the colorful 3D frame, and a hero and heroine pose in rippling red-blooded choreography. Too bad the movie slowly runs out of steam, hitting its peak around the midpoint, then slowly dragging to an underwhelming climax, each sequence a little less involving than the last. But, goodness gracious, how eye-boggling the film is from top to bottom and beginning to end, worth marveling at even after the rote plot and clunky dialogue’s throwback novelty appeal wears off. What preposterously dorky-cool retro-future space serial silliness! It’s good enough to make me wish for a whole bunch more of these, a big, glowing, fully-inhabited fantasy universe worth exploring. After all, marry the look and movement to a tighter, wittier script consistently involving throughout, and you’d really have something here.

Springing from the mind of French trash-master Luc Besson, inspired by a classic French comic book, the writer-director steers into his strengths. Always a tonal eccentric with a brilliant design sense, he’s made a career out of stretching and pulling at genre conceits in unexpected ways. His films aren’t always worthwhile enterprises – he’s made more than his fair share of clunkers – but there’s an earnest appeal to his attempts. Valerian, like Besson’s best films – from the similarly colorful sci-fi Fifth Element to hallucinogenic super-lady actioner Lucy – is built around enjoyable visual tricks and hurtling energy. Familiar in the best sense of the word, here’s a gleaming CG space movie built around geometric ships, rocket suits, laser guns, and glowing screens, and with striking figures – our leads with features more delicate and movements more fluid than we usually get out of stock brutes and babes – flying and posing in elaborately constructed phoniness and quick, chaotic, episodic cliff-hangers. Here we follow interplanetary secret agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), a flirtatious working partnership played with low-chemistry, flat-footed, dopey love/hate obviousness, as they get pulled into a conspiracy involving duplicitous colleagues, secret redacted information, and a bevy of nasty underworld characters on sidetracks and side quests. 

Our heroes’ journey begins in an action sequence with the movie’s coolest idea – an inter-dimensional bazaar where a stakeout turns into a chase sequence that phases in and out of different planes of reality, an inventive transporting genre idea – before returning to Alpha base, where a thousand planets have built a hodgepodge floating city in deep space. They’re meant to be working together in harmony, but amidst the bulkheads and geospheres and capsules of this galactic Zootopia, darkness grows. This leads to Valerian and Laureline’s encounters with their stern commanding officers (Clive Owen, Kris Wu, and Herbie Hancock), heartless robots, a ruthless alien gangster (John Goodman), gossiping duck-billed beings, massive aquatic beasts, memory-unlocking jellyfish, a sexy shapeshifting blob (Rihanna) and her bejeweled cowboy pimp (Ethan Hawke), a tiny rodent that poops magic pearls, and an ethereal race of doomed blue androgynous stowaways (Elizabeth Debicki and others). Through it all, Besson keeps his images spinning with elaborate expensive detail. It’s like the best sci-fi paperback cover paintings you’ve never seen. He had a huge budget and a good imagination and is intent on displaying as much as he can. The heroes crash through dazzlingly rendered visual delights, lingering mere minutes or even seconds in environments so rich with possibility that you could set up shop in just one for an entire feature. But we’re always rushing to the next episode, the next dramatic escape, the next conflict in an unfolding mystery. By the time the plot forces itself to congeal and resolve, petering out in rote villain monologues and tedious flashback explanations, it’s not only with the sad sense of a narrative running out of steam, but with the deflating knowledge that that’s how we’ll have to leave this memorable world.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Beach Front: DUNKIRK

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a logistical triumph about a logistical nightmare. The film tells the story of one of World War II’s nerve-wracking retreats. It’s 1940. British and French forces are repelled from the mainland, trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk with nothing but the water behind them. Off in the distance, perhaps, they can almost convince themselves England can be seen. Alas, it’s so close, yet so far away, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers sitting ducks for the Nazi bombers thundering overhead and the encroaching Axis ground forces held back by Allied gunners behind makeshift sandbag perimeters. As the film unspools, the desperate stranded men look for ways to help speed up their rescue, while we know that help is on the way agonizingly slowly. Nolan’s film has something of a Hemingway spirit about it. Dialogue is terse, to the point. The narrative is in the details, the soft surf of the tides and sea foam, the oil and explosions, the eerie quiet in the air and the dirt under fingernails, the wet hair and panicked expressions betraying stiff-upper-lip duty-bound effort. Nolan, operating at the height of his filmmaking powers, marshals his resources to not so much tell any single man’s story, but to orchestrate an experience that’ll do the real stressful cacophony justice.

He shows us this war story by land, by sea, and by air. With a deft structural trick, he weaves together three distinct speeds and perspectives with which to pass through this historical moment. By land, the soldiers (like those played by Fionn Whitehead, Cillian Murphy, and Harry Styles) and their commander (Kenneth Branagh) fret and plan and hope while under constant threat of enemy fire as they await evacuation, a story taking place over a week. By sea, we find British citizen sailors called in to help speed up the transporting of the troops (an event tenderly memorialized from the homefront’s point of view in William Wyler’s 1942 classic Mrs. Miniver) because the Navy’s destroyers can’t approach the shallows near the beach. We follow one of the boats (captained by Mark Rylance) as its crew makes its way into battle with a sense of dutiful patriotism and a solemn desire to help, a journey there and (hopefully) back again that takes a day. By air, we find the air force, strategically sending a small squadron (led by Tom Hardy) to provide cover in the final stretch of the rescue effort, a crucial dogfight taking place over the course of an hour. Nolan, with his usual crisp, precise, and confident cross-cutting (think Inception’s dream layers, Interstellar’s time change, or Memento’s backwards-and-forwards design), tells these three actions simultaneously, cutting between them to heighten suspense and danger, often in clever matches – floods of water, rat-a-tat guns, grim expressions. 

By the time the stories start to intersect, weaving details in and out, allowing us to see, say, a plane crash first as a moment from above, then floating next to it with another group of character’s later. Eventually, all three storylines converge, climax upon climax upon climax, every character’s peak danger and despair in the same moment of converging crescendos. This remarkably effective structure – experimental, but completely coherent in its logic and effects – is in service of an impeccably detailed recreation. Although the characters it focuses on are sketched quickly, fictional composite stand-ins for the masses of people involved and impacted, the overall sense of fastidious reenactment gives the film the historical weight under its immediacy. This is a lean, tense true-life thriller, every moment pulsing with the unforgiving tick, tick, tick of time running out (further emphasized by Hans Zimmer’s relentlessly simmering score). Shooting on film, and full IMAX film for many scenes, allows cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema to craft shots of remarkable size and scale, with tangible texture and detailed grit, expansively filling the frame with eerie pale light, foreboding blank beaches, cavernous clear skies, and vast expanses of ocean. The men huddled against the forces of warfare are arranged in patterns and lines, formations and orders, holding steady to rules and regulations even in these desperate hours. 

These groups of men are buffeted by elaborate and concussive suspense sequences, immersive effects and booming sound design building dread out of the roaring engines of approaching bombers, the slow smack of waves against a tiny boat, the sputtering propellers of a struggling aircraft, an unforgiving howling wind whipping at frayed nerves. The individuals involved are merely part of the crowd. They aren’t given lengthy moments of backstory and exposition, or made into easy heroes and villains. In fact, the enemy remains unspoken, barely glimpsed behind their weapons of war. Nolan’s focus is on the effect the situation has on the groups of people involved under the vice grip of unceasing peril. They simply do what they must, in every moment, in hopes to see the next. This is an extraordinarily well-made, exceptionally well-crafted film of beautifully elaborate detail building a work of startling simplicity: three straight lines concluding in the same inevitable. It’s a film about process and strategy, how they hold together and fall apart under tough conditions when survival instincts kick in. It’s about how even in defeat you can find dignity, even in fear you can find small acts of heroism. Best of all, it’s an experience that’s uniquely cinematic, overwhelming in its scale and power.