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.

Ghost in the Shell (Sanders; 2017)

Before starting the review proper, I have to say that I have seen the original anime version of Ghost in the Shell, but it was in 1995 when it was first released.  I remember thinking at the time that the movie was “pretty good” but didn’t really have any large effect on me past that, and I haven’t seen it since.  My memories of the film now pretty much cap out at it was Japanese, it was animated, it was pretty good, and there was a tank near the end.  So, this review will not be a comparison to the original in any way and will just take this remake at its own merits.

Secondly, the controversy surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead, Major, in Ghost in the Shell is something I am largely aware of.  In determining how and if I should address that controversy in the film I found that I have so much to say about it that it’s worth an article on its own.  Look for that in this blog shortly, but for now I will just say I am aware of it, and I will speak about it eventually, but not in this review.

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Ghost in the Shell begins by introducing us to Major, a cyborg with a fully robotic body and the brain, but only the brain, of a human being.  We see her as she is initially being created, the doctors inserting the human brain into the robotic body which looks exactly like Scarlett Johannson, and as she blinks her eyes to signify that she is awake and aware, the doctors explain to her what she is.  In this explanation they make absolutely sure to point out that the robotic body is a shell and that her mind is a ghost.  So, she’s a ghost…  in a shell.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I think most of the movie going audience will understand the film’s title without that explanation, but the movie spells it out for us just in case, and not just that one time but several times throughout the course of the film.

Unfortunately, the film’s assumption that its audience is filled with idiots does not end there.  Nearly every move every character makes is accompanied with an explanation of exactly what they are doing and why verbatim as if we couldn’t possibly understand any of the film’s subtext without explaining it all for us.  This all makes for an aggravating and distracting experience where the dialogue in Ghost in the Shell is concerned, making me long for a film in which the characters didn’t speak at all and I could just enjoy the visuals on display.

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Those visuals, I did enjoy immensely.  The special effects and the creativity behind them in combination with the mood and setting they create are as fantastic as the dialogue is lousy.  Every scene we’re shown in this dystopian cybernetic future gives us a fully fleshed out, well conceived universe where overpopulation and pollution are rampant, and where the rich and powerful use holographic advertisements in every single square inch of skyline and sidewalk in an attempt to fleece a desperate populace giving us a vision at once incredibly colorful and bleak,  Many of you reading this have probably seen the trailer in which Major runs along the walls of a room filled with geishas and men in suits firing two pistols as she defies gravity.  As spectacular as this scene is, I wouldn’t rank it among even the top few most visually astonishing scenes in the film. The special effects team, art direction team, and cinematographers all deserve serious kudos for their work here.

The performances are also well done especially considering the script they were given to work with.  Scarlett Johannson is actually the weak link among the actors, as she doesn’t successfully convey the depths of confusion and anxiety that are so important to the ultimate development of Major’s character.  She plays the entire thing from start to finish as an aloof bad ass with an occasional quizzical attitude when the tragedies inherent in her history are revealed.  Pilou Asbaek as Major’s right hand man and possible love interest Batou, though, is excellent.  He comes across as what Major should be: badass, funny, vulnerable, and introspective all at once.  “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, one of Japan’s most popular actors, also gives a fantastic performance as Major’s boss Aramaki.  Even though he has not a single line in English he still portrays a character that is at once boss and father figure, the leader who cares perhaps too much for those he leads, without ever turning it into a caricature and surprises us more than once throughout the film with his acting choices which very much break from the way a character of this nature would normally be played.

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Final recommendation: Ghost in the Shell has serious script problems.  The dialogue is the worst kind of spoon fed tripe and the plot could be so much more thematically but ultimately ignores what could the more profound elements of itself and devolves into a video game complete with final boss monster (that’s kind of unfair to video games as their plots are getting better and better as time goes on – this is a 1995 video game).  However, it is a feast visually with a fully fleshed out world, beautiful camera work, and awe inspiring action.  The sound, including the music, aside from the spoken words are also excellent, and the acting is pretty darn good.  So, while the immensely flawed story and words make this a hard one for me to recommend overall, if you are the type who think nuance is overrated and you just want to see something cool, then this will do the trick.  If you need character development, subtlety, and rich themes to explore, though, Ghost in the Shell is one to skip. 

Get Out (Peele; 2017)

Any comparison between Jordan Peele’s, yes of Key and Peele, new horror movie Get Out and The Stepford Wives is not only apt, it’s intentional.  Peele has said in interviews that he has always loved the dystopian feminist 1975 horror film, and felt that a treatment of a similar script using black and white people instead of men and women could work.  He thought of the idea in 2008, right when Barack Obama had been elected into the Presidency and many were declaring racism dead in the United States due to this fact.  Now 9 years later his vision is finally hitting the multiplexes and is possibly even more apropos now than it was then, though it certainly has a very different spin to it.

The storyline of Get Out gives us Chris Washington (played by Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), an interracial couple, he’s black and she’s white, who have been together long enough that she is now taking him to meet her wealthy parents for the first time at their palatial and far from the beaten path home by spending a weekend there together.   Despite Rose’s assurances that her parents (played wonderfully by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) aren’t racist, Chris feels something is wrong from the first moment he arrives.  To say any more than that is to enter into spoiler territory, but I don’t think it’s any surprise to say that Chris’ feelings are absolutely spot on.daniel-kaluuya-as-chris-and-allison-williams-as-rose-in-get-out

Jordan Peele both wrote and directed Get Out, but he does not appear in the movie even in so much as a cameo, so you would expect this to have some humor to it.  While Get Out does definitely showcase Peele’s incredibly sharp and unflinching wit from beginning to end, there is nothing in this film which would classify it in any way as a comedy.  It has moments of levity, sure, but this is a horror thriller through and through.   The way Peele’s signature wit is displayed here is through his sly commentary on race which seems to be obvious until you realize that there are many layers and levels to his themes which have been subtly but surely making their way into your consciousness as you watch.

Peele is not condemning more conservative and overt racial hatred in the film, but rather he is pointing directly at liberal racism, and as a liberal I can say that Get Out definitely does its job well, though to say more is to, again, enter into spoiler territory.  It also interestingly speaks to an underlying fear in the black community of white people, not just distrust, but fear, and particularly of well-off white collar professional white people.  I don’t know if this was intentional on Peele’s part, as I haven’t heard him mention that element of the film in his talks on it, but I thought this added another very interesting dimension to the film well worth some thought alongside the themes of liberal racism.agetout

This is Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, and his second feature film length writing project after last year’s Keanu, but you would never be able to tell as every single element of the film is handled at the very least competently, and most often masterfully.  The script is Get Out‘s high point, and while it’s seriously early in the year to talk about best of anything in any way, I predict this script is one that will still be remembered at year’s end.   It’s witty, thoughtful, tense, with sharp dialogue and excellent pacing.  Perhaps the only thing it lacks is strong character development, but since it’s a story that focuses on one specific event over one weekend that can largely be forgiven.

The acting is excellent for the most part, though Allison Williams as Rose and Caleb Landry Jones as her brother Jeremy can both fall a little flat much of the time.  Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford as Rose’s parents Whitney and Dean are the highlights of the film, being charming and parental while still having a sinister air about them.  They are constantly unsettling, but despite this you still understand why people would want to be in their company, or at least would think themselves silly for finding anything less than charming about them.  Daniel Kaluuya could have been a little better as our leading man, Chris, but he does what needs to be done to show himself as a sympathetic lead.  I did find myself rooting for him and putting myself in his position most of the time throughout Get Out, but his performance was inconsistent enough that I found the spell where he was concerned broken from time to time, which is what unfortunately keeps this movie from being truly great and merely very, very good.

The cinematography in Get Out is well handled, even if it’s never awe inducing.  It serves its purpose without ever calling attention to itself.  The art direction and practical effects in the film are also handled quite well, again never really calling attention to themselves in any way outside of doing exactly what they need to do.get-out-keith-stanfield

The section below is a more in depth discussion of Get Out’s themes, and so include some pretty major spoilers.  I am going to use white text to write it, so highlight the blank area below to read this section, or just skip to the final recommendation if you don’t want any spoilers.

Jordan Peele’s condemnation of liberal America is the most fascinating element of the film, and one I will have to think on a lot more before I truly come to any conclusion, and the fact that I can and want to really is the sign of a fantastic script.  Peele seems to be saying here that liberal America’s fascination with black culture, while it doesn’t have the outright hostility, anger, and hatred contained in conservative America, is just as insidious.  He seems to be saying that liberals don’t understand black culture any more than conservatives do, but that they still seek to control it with incorporation with white culture rather than through forceful dominance.

This also explains why I feel the movie has a, perhaps intended, perhaps not, subtext of black fear of whites, well more than just a subtext since this is a horror movie about whites trying to capture and control black people, but I’m not sure that’s what Peele intended thematically rather than just as a necessary plot element.  Is it a reasonable fear?  Absolutely.  There is no doubt that even the most well-intentioned of liberals would still feel more comfortable if everyone acted just like they do, it’s human nature to feel that way, and to say white culture is the dominant culture in the United States is so obvious a statement as to be insulting.

Final recommendation:  Jordan Peele’s first foray into horror and into directing is everything a horror movie should be.  It uses its plot and tension as a mirror into very real world cultural issues and insecurities.  It isn’t perfect, but it is incredibly thoughtful.  The acting isn’t always the best, and the horror is more creepy than scary, but I guarantee this film will leave you thinking about it for days on end afterward and could very well change or solidify your personal views on some very important subjects surrounding race and culture.

A Cure for Wellness (Verbinski; 2017)

Gore Verbinski is hardly a novice director.  He is the one who was in the director’s chair for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Mexican, and Rango.  He also gave us two of the other Pirates of the Caribbean movies and The Lone Ranger, but, still, while he isn’t batting 1.000, he isn’t a novice.  It would be hard to tell that from this effort, though, since aside from a few of the sets here and there, A Cure for Wellness looks to be strictly amateur hour.

The movie starts with our protagonist Lockhart, played by Dane DeHaan, as a very generic young up and comer type character at a generic company that deals with money in some way or another.  Our generic protagonist has broken some rules, and is in trouble with the SEC, so when Pembroke (Harry Groener), one of the CEOs of his generic company, has announced he isn’t returning from his spa vacation in the Alps because he has seen the error of his ways and is being cured, the other CEOs tell Lockhart that he has to go bring him back.  Apparently sending a salesperson with ethics issues whom has never met his intended quarry before seems like a good idea to the CEOs of generic company, perhaps explaining why they feel they need Pembroke back so badly.a2bcure2bfor2bwellness

When Lockhart arrives at the spa he finds it has a very sordid centuries old past involving a baron, his wife, the local townsfolk, and the castle that was on this site being burned down.  He also finds that this is a retreat and treatment center for the world’s wealthiest people and that it is rare, if ever, that anyone ever leaves the treatment center.  Apparently no one has noticed that a very large percentage of the world’s most wealthy and prominent people have been disappearing  without a trace for the past century or more after going to the Swiss Alps.  Why would anyone notice that?

As preposterous and poorly thought out as this premise and set up is, the film just keeps getting more and more ridiculous as it goes on, with characters remaining completely oblivious to the very obviously macabre and unsavory goings on at the treatment center, putting the only person who does suspect anything in exactly the places he needs to discover what he needs to (Lockhart suspects things aren’t entirely kosher here, so let’s make sure we put him in the room which has a window which directly overlooks the secret underground passage), plot devices which can work one way in one scene and in exactly the opposite in the next with no explanation as to why they would be different, and so on.   There is nothing in the writing that isn’t completely amateurish from the pacing, to the plot itself, to the dialogue, and the devices.  All of it is arbitrary and generic and exists purely because someone had what they apparently thought was a good idea then had no idea how to write any of it.

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The acting is completely wooden, with not a single person showing any kind of emotion nor depth except for one singular and usually rather boring and cliched character trait which they stick to from beginning to end.  Lockhart is an ambitious sociopath, Hannah (Mia Goth) is a naive waif, Pembroke a repentant rich guy, and so on.  While the script doesn’t do the actors any favors with what they are given to work with, not a single actor does anything to even remotely rise their performance above the material and give us dull, predictable, unfocused, and sloppy performances to a person.

The camera work and visuals on display are, I suppose, meant to be unsettling, and in a way they are, but again its more because of how sloppy and vague they are rather than the fact that they hit a proper tone.  The art direction makes the hospital spa look like something Victorian even though no reason is ever given that the treatment center wouldn’t need to nor want to upgrade to modern tools and machines, and there are an awful lot of unexplained empty, dark, and just plain ugly areas in this spa, especially for one which the wealthiest people in the world clamor to go to and then never want to leave.

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Final recommendation:  A Cure for Wellness is a generic, dull, ugly film which isn’t even brave enough to reach “so bad it’s good” territory.  Don’t go see this in the theaters, and try to avoid it for the rest of your life, if possible.   But if a friend does force you to watch this someday, you could get some entertainment out of making a game which involves pointing out all plot holes and inconsistencies, though if that game involves drinking make sure you won’t be driving anywhere anytime soon, and be careful you don’t contract alcohol poisoning.

The Girl on the Train (Taylor; 2016)

Rachel (Emily Blunt), the titular character in The Girl on the Train, rides everyday past the houses of Megan (Haley Bennett) and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and daydreams about the life of Megan and her husband while trying to avoid looking at the house of Anna and her husband.  We know all this from watching the opening scene of the movie, but just in case what we see in this opening scene isn’t enough to get this across to the audience, we also hear the voice of Rachel explaining exactly what it is she’s doing and every single feeling she’s having about doing it.  We then get to see scenes where people talk about their lives and feelings to their therapists, and to the police, and to their husbands, and their roommates, and voice-overs explaining exactly what we’re watching them do, in fact it’s about two thirds of the way through The Girl on the Train before we see that this movie is a thriller and a mystery and not just a movie about people explaining what we’re watching and exactly how they feel about that.

Even once we figure out what type of film we’re watching, we already have it all figured out.  For most of the running time I thought The Girl on the Train was just a very poorly written thriller, but after a certain event let me know that what I was watching was actually a mystery, I figured out at the exact same moment who the villain of the story was, because all the hamfisted exposition up to this point made it that obvious.  I have never read the novel The Girl on the Train, but I have to hope the writing in it was not this amateurish, as every single bit of writing in the film version ignores everything that can make dialogue exciting, exposition creative, and plotting intense.

While the writing is most certainly the most egregious element in The Girl on the Train, the acting is also an area of deficiency.  Emily Blunt does a decent job with her role considering what little she was given to work with, though even she has a tendency throughout much of the film to overact and give a hackneyed portrayal of Rachel, and Allison Janney makes the most of her little on screen time.  Every other actor in the film however, gives us an awkward, uninspired, and amateurish performance, whether that due to being unable to show any emotion at all or going so far over the top it’s clownish.

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We really are a loving, caring couple.  We’re just also really low key.

The cinematography in The Girl on the Train is proficient enough, but we still have the problem with lack of creativity.  Most of the time the camera is concerned with obscuring what exactly is going on so as to best create mystery in the worst possible way.  When it isn’t hiding which characters we are looking at or places they’re inhabiting, it’s making sure to catch all those pretty faces in the best lights and angles possible.  Whenever there is some trick pulled with our perspective, not only is it always a trick we’ve seen before, but it’s so telegraphed that it’s quite obvious the director wanted to make absolutely one hundred percent sure that we didn’t miss his moment of ingenuity.

The crux of all the myriad problems in The Girl on the Train really comes down to the fact that the creators of the film are trying to stretch out 15 minutes of actual story into an almost 2 hour run time, and very few of those involved were talented enough to do so even if this was a good idea.  There isn’t much story, so the script has to focus on character, the characters aren’t very deep, so they have to talk a lot, and since there isn’t much to talk about they drone on about themselves in the most angst ridden middle school way possible, if angst ridden middle schoolers were alcoholics and serial cheaters that is.

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Respect my angst!

Needless to say, The Girl on the Train is a film I recommend to very, very few.  There is a niche audience of self-loathing, but also man hating, women out there who will like it on some level as a form of fantasy and wish fulfillment, but I really can’t see that there would be many others who would enjoy this as anything other than an exercise in exactly how not to write a screenplay.  It tries for thrills, depth, import, and even pretentiousness and it manages to fail on every single level.  There are many better things you can do with 112 minutes without even trying.

Rating:  3.0 out of 10