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.

Kong: Skull Island (Vogt-Roberts; 2017)

Kong: Skull Island you would think is somehow attached to the King Kong remake from 2005 helmed by Peter Jackson, but this installment focusing on America’s favorite gigantic ape is actually apparently connected to the Godzilla reboot from 2014.  It seems every studio feels the need to copy Marvel’s success with their film universe and start with one of their own – this is the Legendary Entertainment subsidiary of Warner Brother’s attempt at a movie universe featuring giant monsters.  While I am getting a bit weary of so many obvious and lame attempts by so many Hollywood companies to start printing their own money like Disney and Marvel are doing together, I have to admit that the idea of a series of films with the likes of Godzilla, Mothra, King Kong, and Gamera all duking it out very much appeals to the little child that still lurks inside of Shaun.

Kong: Skull Island takes place in 1973 with John Goodman playing Bill Randa a World War II veteran and current conspiracy theorist who is trying to get a government grant to visit Skull Island, an island permanently surrounded by a nasty chain of storms such that no one can get near it, nor even see inside.  He finally gets his funding when he convinces a senator that it’s important Americans get to the island before the Russians do, because who knows what secrets could be there?   What no one else knows, including the group of soldiers and scientists Randa gets to come along on the survey with him, is that Randa knows full well that this is an island filled with giant monsters, monsters that killed his platoon in World War II and now he is here to get Captain Ahab style revenge.

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What we are given in Kong: Skull Island is essentially an incredibly high budget B-movie.  The plot is paper-thin and really just an excuse to watch big monsters attack each other.  Cliche after cliche is the order of the day in both story and dialogue.  It seems like screenwriters Dan Gilroy and Max Boorstein found a list of overused lines from war and action films then ordered that list so that they ended making for some sort of patchwork story.  There are a handful, barely a handful, of original ideas to be found in the story, enough that you have to wonder if the writers were able to recognize the banality of their work and either didn’t care or crafted it that way on purpose, but for the most part you will be able to predict every line spoken and every action taken by every one-dimensional character on screen.

This lack of a nuanced script does no favor to the actors, who are for the most part portraying an archetype with a quirk or two rather than an actual character.  Tom Hiddleston is charming, but little else, the supporting soldiers are pretty much just walking tropes, and Brie Larson as photojournalist Mason Weaver is reduced to pure eye candy.  The exceptions to this are the three grizzled vets of the cast: Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, and particularly John C. Reilly who all chew the scenery like few others can and bring life to their crazy old men characters through sheer force of charisma.   All three are a joy to watch when they are given center stage, but John C. Reilly goes above and beyond even the other two and gives us a portrayal that at times feels too good to be in this movie.

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Who goes to see Kong: Skull Island for nuanced writing and Oscar worthy performances, though?  If you’re at all living in this reality, you’re seeing Kong: Skull Island to see a gigantic ape kick butt and terrify some puny mortals, and on this level Kong delivers and keeps on delivering.  The creativity lost in the script was apparently saved for the action.  As we see Kong himself and the various giant denizens of Skull Island battle for supremacy of their corner of the world we are awed over and over again at the sheer bombasity of scale and ferocity.  Without entering spoiler territory, let’s just say that a lot of soldiers and scientists begin the film alive, and not too many make it to the end, and nearly every one of their deaths will make you gasp and giggle and occasionally cringe in true over the top B-movie fashion.

The visuals match the action with really well made CGI effects giving the monsters and the environments a real wow factor, and provide us with a nearly non-stop spectacle so packed with things to look and wonder at that it seems impossible they can all be caught in a single viewing.  The only two serious issues I found with the visual element of the film is first that Kong himself seemed to be constantly changing size, in one scene flicking a helicopter the size of one of his fingernails then later a person standing in front of his face is the size of his nose, and second I personally found the villainous lizard monsters of the film to be rather uninspired and never really worthy of any fear or hate other than that I knew I was supposed to because that is what the movie told me to do.

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Final recommendation:  Kong: Skull Island is big, loud, and dumb, and never pretends to be anything else.  If just my saying the words King Kong doesn’t get you at least a little excited then this probably isn’t the movie for you.  If, however, as a child you spent a lot of time growling and knocking over you block and LEGO buildings while pretending to eat the little people hiding inside then this is absolutely a film for you.  Kong: Skull Island will not make you think, it will not challenge any of your preconceptions, it will not make you want to be a better person, but it will absolutely make the somewhat destructive child inside you utterly and completely gleeful.  I’d recommend seeing it at a matinee to avoid too large of a price tag for unleashing your inner giant gorilla, but I definitely recommend seeing it.