Atomic Blonde (Leitch; 2017)

The year is 1989, the Soviet Union’s collapse is all but done with revolutions happening throughout their territories and communist regimes toppling left and right.  In Berlin Russian, British, and American spies are all trying to get their hands on “The List”, a comprehensive registry of all known intelligence agents for every country involved in the Cold War, including the real name of “Satchel”, a double agent all sides have an interest in getting their hands on.  Charlize Theron is Lorraine Broughton an M.I. 6 Agent who has the talents her bosses need when the man who had The List, who also happens to be a former lover of Lorraine’s, is killed in East Germany.

Atomic Blonde is the major motion picture directorial debut  of former stuntman David Leitch (he has directed a Deadpool short and parts of John Wick previously).  The stunts are top notch, of course, given his background, but even more impressive is his camera work.  He and director of cinematography Jonathon Sela give us a film which appropriately mixes up its styles to give us some really impressive visuals including one ten to fifteen minute long fight sequence in an apartment stairwell which seems to have been done in one long cut.  Directors are commonly known as having a type and Leitch seems to be a natural when it comes to the art of action from the standpoint of both the people and the visuals involved.

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Charlize Theron has been impressing me for decades giving us hardly a bad movie and never a bad performance going all the way back to the early 2000’s and her turn in Monster which impressed the world with her talent and her bravery.  In Atomic Blonde she shows off her bravery yet again as she bares everything and does her own very physically demanding stunts in her 40’s.  Theron has long been showing she’s more interested in her reputation as a serious actress than as a beautiful woman, and while her performance here is certainly more about plot and action than it is about character, one of Atomic Blonde’s main weaknesses is a lack of real character development, she once again proves her dedication to the craft of acting.

James McAvoy performs our other primary character David Percival.  McAvoy is another actor who is known for his talent  when he could be coasting by on his good looks.  Here he does his job well giving us person whom we cannot nail down.  In a film which relies on suspicion to move the story, McAvoy gives us someone we want to trust but know what a bad idea that would be.  His performance is one which relies on body language and glances, and subtle variations between the words he is speaking and the actions he performs.  He perfectly treads the thin line between subtlety and obvious to give us the necessary doubt without ever having to figuratively give the audience a wink.

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The story is a straightforward one with not a single subplot to be found, but the main story is intricate and winding enough that you could get lost if you’re not paying attention to details.  There are revelations made which can change the way earlier scenes and characters needed to be viewed, and after the fantastic finale to this film when we think the final piece of the puzzle is put into place, we realize just how much of what we experienced was a game meant to deceive us through tropes and misdirection.  In a way the plot is the most simple of all, find and bring home “The List” is really its entirety, but there’s genius in the way this simplicity can lead us down so many misleading paths.

A definite make or break element of Atomic Blonde is its soundtrack.  As someone who did the majority of his growing up during the 1980’s I was really into the movie’s use of it’s music made up entirely of 80’s dance club tracks.  The film has a constant beat, and much like Baby Driver, the action moves along to that beat and there is more than one scene obviously choreographed to match the music which accompanies it.  I thought it added to the already dynamic action of the film, but if 80’s club music isn’t your thing, I can see where the non-stop barrage of it could become an annoyance as the film moves on.

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Final verdict:  Atomic Blonde won’t give you deep characters to study nor enlighten you with its nuanced world view, but if you can live without intellectualism you are in for a treat as it is a really smart, non-stop action film with a very recognizable style.  It can be absolutely brutal at times, and Atomic Blonde earns its R-rating more than perhaps any other spy film I’ve seen, and that element is what keeps the movie modern when everything else about the film is a throwback to 30 years ago when synthesized music reigned, cigarettes were cool, break dancing was in, and the motto world wide was “it’s all about me.”  I not only highly recommend Atomic Blonde, but I predict that this is a film that will one day reach a classic of the spy genre status.

Kubo and the Two Strings (Knight; 2016)

The majority of this review is going to deal with the dualities that permeated Kubo and the Two Strings from tones, to thematics, to sensibilities, to even the music, but before I start speaking about that, the very first thing that needs to be said about this movie is that it is gorgeous.  Travis Knight and his crew of artists and animators have brought forth a thing of absolute beauty with vivid color schemes, fantastic designs, and incredible attention to detail.  You forget while watching Kubo and the Two Strings that what you are seeing is stop motion and not hand drawn or CGI animation (though, I suspect many of the backgrounds were, in fact, done with CGI).  This is more than just a single level beyond what Tim Burton wowed us with when he gave us The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride, what Knight and company give us often seems impossible, but there it is.  I have no problem with giving away the end of this review by saying that I will most definitely be buying this movie on Blu-Ray, but before I watch the film itself, I will have to watch the making of featurettes because what these animators have managed to accomplish astonished me so much that what I saw does not always seem plausible, and I have to know how they did it.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a movie that, while it never mentions Yin-Yang, is infused with duality after duality.  It’s a film written with Western plot structure, but with Eastern stylings.  Western stories are all about, well, telling a story.  Most people reading this will know it as the only story telling style there is.  Plot has a structure and a rhythm, a beginning, a middle, and an end which all come at around the same time throughout the life cycle of a story, and have a pattern all Western audiences not only find familiar, but understand so intuitively that to tell a story any other way just doesn’t feel right.  Eastern story telling is quite different.  Structure, plot, and character all take a back seat to what I can only describe as experience.  The emotions a story evokes, the message it teaches, the philosophy it espouses are all more important to an Eastern story than things like character consistencies or plot points hitting at appropriate times.  In Eastern stories things happen not to further a plot, necessarily, but to make the audience react.  Kubo and the Two Strings manages to be both story telling styles at once as it uses Western plot structure with its 3 act story line that rises and falls right when a Western audience would expect but it doesn’t bother overly much with explanation or internal logic, instead giving us characters and settings that don’t need to be explained or even understood in order to entertain and engage us.  Where does the Moon King come from, and what is he really?  A god, wizard, spirit?  It doesn’t matter ultimately to the story so we’ll never know.  Many of our main characters and places just are, and that’s okay because overemphasis on exposition can often just be a distraction.

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In a Western movie, I’d be a cheap plot device.  In an Eastern movie, I’m part of the experience.

Another duality is that is a movie made both for children and adults, and not in the normal way people talk about when discussing family movies.  For the children, the humor in Kubo and the Two Strings is incredibly corny, to an eye rolling, dad joke degree.  It’s not too badly overdone, but I found myself groaning often at the attempts at humor throughout the film while also recognizing that young children would probably find much of it hilarious in the same way they love repeating jokes that were once upon a time found on the side of a Dixie cup (I’m showing my age).  The characters are also aimed at a younger audience with the scary never being too terribly scary and the protagonists always being a child, a parental figure, or over the top comic relief.  However, Kubo and the Two Strings is never afraid to shy away from adult issues like death, abandonment, grief, and responsibility.  While Kubo and the Two Strings never becomes grotesque, it is very often dark and earnest and could quite possibly be a bit much for children of an age young enough to appreciate the humor in the movie.  This is definitely one adults will have to watch with their children because they will have a good many questions afterward, the adults may even find themselves with one or two themselves.

The plot itself also has a great many yin-yang elements, most of which can’t be talked about in any great detail or the movie would be spoiled.  The story deals with both the natural and the spiritual world.  Day and night play important roles.  Even something as seemingly one dimensional as good and evil are shown to have two sides, and there are, of course, the titular two strings…

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It’s almost as if the title means something.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a movie that demands you expand the way you think and feel in order to enjoy and understand it in its entirety.  If you are willing to try to be both adult and child, believer and cynic, thinker and feeler, then Kubo will have a lot to offer.  If you insist on viewing it with tunnel vision, however, then you are going to find much of the story annoying and confusing. Both Kubo the child and Kubo the movie are beings that exist in two worlds at once.   No matter how open minded you decide to be, however, you will at least get to experience the most gorgeous animation to grace the big screen in some time.

Rating:  8.2 out of 10