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Atomic Blonde

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: David Leitch

Stars: Bill Skarsgård, Charlize Theron, Eddie Marsan, James Faulkner, James McAvoy,Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, John Goodman, Roland Møller, Sam Hargrave, Sofia Boutella, Til Schweiger, Toby Jones

Released: August 9th, 2017

From director David Leitch, one half of the team that brought us the refreshing and uniquely packaged John Wick as well as the guy who is spearheading next year’s Deadpool 2, comes Atomic Blonde-a female version of John Wick set in the eighties, with tons of eighties music, action, action, and starring Charlize Theron as the titular blonde who doesn’t mind messing up her make-up as long as a cool soundtrack is laid over her walking away from her fights. Yeah, I’d love to see that movie. Who wouldn’t, right? It would seem anyone who loves having a good time while sitting in an air conditioned auditorium eating food that’s not going to help you look like the people you’re watching on screen (at all) and staring up at an expansive screen would be thrilled by the combo of Theron, eighties, and action. I was certainly psyched. And then…please! No “and then”! And then it happened. Yes, it happened. After an equally ecstatic and moody introduction to this world in which we’d be existing for the next two hours the movie rapidly descended into a rather slow-moving, narrative heavy slog that would only intermittently bring us a sequence where Theron’s Lorraine Broughton was allowed to let loose. But boy, when Leitch and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) allow their leading lady to show off she certainly doesn’t disappoint. This is also what is ultimately so frustrating about Atomic Blonde as it rather frequently gives us glimpses of what it could have been, what it was advertised to be, and what it seemingly wants to be as the action scenes are inspired, the backing tracks to Theron kicking ass are killer, and the film generally looks great-capturing the tone of late eighties Berlin by coating everything around our main character and her exploits in drab shades of gray to emphasize the burst of energy Broughton brings with her when she walks in a room. And yet, for one reason or another, Leitch decided to allow long stretches of his movie to become overly involved in Johnstad’s plotting when what made both the original John Wick and its sequel so much fun was the simplicity of the plot and the building of an interesting world. Atomic Blonde doesn’t build a world as much as it recreates one; Atomic Blonde doesn’t keep the emphasis on the action, but wants audiences to take its twisting plot as seriously as Leitch no doubt takes his stunt work, but while Atomic Blonde feels carefully constructed and as precise in all aspects a director could hope it also never feels as fun or entertaining as it was meant to be.

Set in 1989 (which I wasn’t privy to prior to walking into the film) in East Berlin the film opens as we see a man who we surmise is a secret agent being killed by another man who it turns out is an enforcer in the KGB that is seeking the always reliable maguffin of a list of every active field agent in the Soviet Union. This, of course, would lead to the bad guys identifying and ultimately killing a lot of well-trained, but unsuspecting special agents who have done nothing but try and serve their country and their united kingdom well. The film then jumps forward a few weeks where our protagonist, Theron’s Broughton, is bathing in an ice bath with bruises covering nearly every square inch of her flesh. She is deliberate in every one of her actions as she dresses, collects her belongings, and boards an aircraft to return home where she is immediately taken in by Secret Intelligence Service officials Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and the mysterious Chief ‘C’ (James Faulkner) who, along with American CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), interrogate Broughton so as to get her account of how everything went sideways in Berlin. As Broughton tells it, she was made from the moment her feet touched the ground (and probably even before) as her contact and on the ground, agent David Percival (James McAvoy), didn’t even bother to show up in time to pick her up at the airport. Percival had previously been tasked with transporting the man who stole and memorized the list who is now codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) across the border, but upon Broughton’s arrival to track down the killer of that initial agent as well as retrieve the list-which has been hidden in a wrist watch, of course-Percival begins to get a little too cagey and suspicious with his actions. In the midst of all of this Broughton also meets Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) who is a novice French agent also on the tail of the KGB and the ruthless billionaire arms dealer leading an espionage ring in war-torn Berlin, Aleksander Bremovych (Roland Møller). Lasalle and Broughton develop something of a genuine relationship though as Atomic Blonde, which is an adaptation of Antony Johnston’s 2012 graphic novel, The Coldest City, runs its course it becomes more and more clear that nothing is as it appears and that Broughton’s intentions might not only be that of bringing back the list and saving the lives of the agents whose identities reside on it, but a little more complex than even the script would care to acknowledge.

With the onslaught of trailers, clips, and other promotional materials one might have seen around Atomic Blonde it wouldn’t have been confusing would someone have thought this would be an energetic, no-holds barred, actioner that was set to the rhythm of a few good eighties tunes and supplied just enough plot to string the no doubt breathtaking action sequences together as well as enough of an investment in our main character so as to care about whether or not she survives through to the end despite the fact we know that she will the entire time. In several instances, Atomic Blonde is just that: it has a plethora of eighties tunes that provide a backdrop for the time and the tone of that time period as well as even some context in regards to the kind of statement being made or the idea being played out in terms of assisting the audience in how to more fully understand and assess the film in terms of what Leitch and his creative team were going for. There are action sequences that are as impressive as anything that has been put to screen in recent memory including Leitch and Chad Stahelski’s work on the John Wick films as Atomic Blondefeatures a Charlize Theron who smacks a guy with a freezer door knocking him out cold (pun totally intended) and then wrapping an extension cord around another guy’s neck who she then uses as an anchor as she jumps out of a multi-story building. All of this is set, comically, to the tune of George Michael’s “Father Figure,” which works to both highlight the insane action taking place while at the same time adding something of an unexpected moodiness to the scene that combines to present this epicness to the presence of Broughton which is what any such action movie positioned around a single, exceptional weapon requires. This won’t be the sequence folks will be talking about as they leave the theater though, no, that one is reserved for one that takes place later in the film (ironically only using the cracks of bones, blasts of gunfire, and screeches of tires as its soundtrack) that is presented as if it has been captured in a single shot. Beginning in a stairwell with Theron taking on multiple adversaries, moving into a multi-room apartment where Leitch and his stunt team utilize corners and nooks to their advantage and allow their characters to use common household materials to theirs-the scene eventually evolves into a rather lengthy car-chase that, while likely comprised of three or four unbroken takes, are combined to look as if it were a relentless ten-plus minute single take of our heroine kicking ass and taking names while taking our breath away which it deservedly does. Unfortunately, between such moments Atomic Blondefails to engage either on an intellectual or emotional level as the narrative is too convoluted to trust any logic it tries to lay down and the characters ultimately function as little more than plot devices despite the talented cast giving it their all leaving little room for the viewer to genuinely engage with them.

It would seem rather cliché to critique a film on the basis of style over substance and you won’t find that here as Atomic Blondewas always going to be a movie that had style for days whereas it seemed apparent its substance could only trickle so deep, but by trying to flip such expectations the film both writes itself into a hole of spy movie conventions while never digging deep enough into certain avenues that it only begins to explore. And so, it is in these long interims between action set pieces that we come to meet the players in this game we don’t care nearly enough about and where the film makes slight attempts at being about something more than just the action, but yet never has the balls to truly go all-in on. Rather, Johnstad’s screenplay only tips its hat towards ideas such as the ever-balancing conscience of a secret agent or spy who, while there job is to save the world, also has to consider where they might go once that world is saved. If there objective is ever truly accomplished in full what would there be left for them to do? While individuals in such positions likely know this will never actually be an issue there is the smaller scale version of this problem that has them becoming so ingrained and, for lack of a better term, comfortable in their current role that they fear having to adjust to something new or take on a different type of challenge. Atomic Blonde explores this to some extent through McAvoy’s character as his Percival is the one that has lived in Berlin for such a period and fallen in love with the city to the point that he’s clearly having trouble reconciling who he once was and who he’s become. As many a spy films do, Atomic Blonde also touches on the idea of each of its characters worlds being entirely based upon secrets and the difference in knowing when to buy in and when to call bullshit. Theron’s Broughton is a pro of sorts at this as the actresses’ performance becomes more and more striking with each passing frame where she’s not kicking ass through the power of her non-verbal communications that allow the audience in on the fact she is keenly aware of the difference between the truth and lies, but simply chooses to ignore most of it in favor of turning situations into those that will favor her best interests down the road. So yeah, Atomic Blonde certainly has a lot of good things going for it as the performances from Theron, McAvoy, and Boutella are all gauged in accordance with the tone Leitch is seeking while Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela (John Wick) give the movie style beyond measure, but at the end of the day for all the persistence and power the movie has it ends up feeling weak not in its execution, but in its harmony with what it thinks it is. The movie itself never being able to match up with the energy of the music.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

Movie Reviews

LFF Review 2018 – Madeline’s Madeline ★★★★

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Madelines Madeline Movie Marker

Director: Josephine Decker

Stars: Miranda July, Molly Parker, Helena Howard

Released: London Film Festival

Indie favourite actress/director, Josephine Decker premiered her third feature, Madeline’s Madeline at Sundance earlier this year where she received praise for her unconventional take on mental illness.

16 years old Madeline suffers from unspecified mental health problems which have created a wedge between her and her slightly over bearing mother (Miranda July). Spending most of her time alone, she finds comfort when joining an experimental theatre troupe and even develops a strong bond with its ambitious director, Evangeline (the psychotic Molly Parker). When Evangeline starts to use Madeline’s delicate mental state and personal issues with her mother as part of her play, the line between reality and illusion quickly starts to blur.

‘The emotions you are having are not your own. They are someone else’s. You are not the cat – you are inside the cat’. So begins 15 minutes of blurred and beautifully shot sequence that immediately puts the audience in a state of daze. When we are officially introduced to Madeline, we find an energetic young woman who would much rather disappear behind wild animals in theatre rehearsals than have any serious discussion with her mother. Sharing the screen is the interesting Evangeline, who is as passionate as inspiring but whose play doesn’t seem to make much sense to anyone, including herself.

The film’s stand out is the acting and nothing ever feels rehearsed. Helena Howard as Madeline is terrific and easily switches between the disturbed teenager, the cat, the seductress, the turtle and the actress, always bursting with energy and vulnerability.

The film has its witty moments, particularly when during an acting exercise Madeline decides to punish Evangeline for using her personal confessions by simulating a painful childbirth, in the hopes of terrifying the freshly pregnant teacher.

Decker also explores the interesting duality of the role of the artist. Often torn between the idea that creating is disappearing behind someone’s else story or on the contrary it is all about using real experiences to bring depth and authenticity, Decker seems to suggest it is a little of both and that both extremes could end up with either an artificial or violating result. No one understands what Evangeline’s play is about at first and when she finally finds substance that speaks to others (Madeline’s personal issues), she chooses to entirely focus on it instead of adding her own substance and ends up being kicked out by the troupe.

Madeline’s Madeline is visually stunning thanks to Ashley Connor ‘s imaginative cinematography and both Howard and Decker bring to life a condition that is still misunderstood and dismissed. The storyline does takes its time to emerge and the daze occasionally mixes with confusion. Howard keeps the audience in her mental maze throughout the film. It is messy, unusual and dense and maybe that was the whole point.

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LFF 2018 Review – A Private War ★★★

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A Private War Movie Marker

Director: Matthew Heineman

Stars: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci, Tom Hollander

Released: London Film Festival 2018

‘ I see it so you don’t have to!’ Rosamund Pike, as war correspondent Marie Colvin, spits out at her Sunday Times editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) towards the end of A Private War  as they argue on the banks of the Thames which rolls serenely past. She means the atrocities of war which she is compelled to return to time and again to report on despite hating her own compulsion. She does it, she believes, to give a voice to the ordinary men, women and children who are fodder for the military and political ambitions of dictators and leaders themselves safe in their palaces, well, until the mob gets to them and takes selfies with their mutilated corpse as we see later in the film.

Marie Colvin was a much celebrated war reporter who was killed in Syria in 2012 along with her interpreter/guide. She achieved fame in her lifetime for her fearless, uncompromising journalism but also for the black eye patch she wore after losing an eye in Sri Lanka when reporting on the Tamil Tigers in 2001. Her death will still be fresh in the minds of those who follow current affairs as will her extraordinary persona.

It’s a testament then to the tremendous power of Rosamund Pike’s performance that minutes into A Private War she becomes Colvin. The deep gravelly voice, the Long Island accent, the no nonsense, blunt manner of speaking are not only completely captured but taken possession of by the very English rose Pike.

She embodies Colvin with a natural ease which exposes the private vulnerabilities of a woman who could have been simplistically portrayed as a one of those annoying ‘strong, uncompromising women’ that Hollywood seems to think raises the female profile but real women find unbearable. Pike is not afraid to make the chain smoking, heavy drinking, conflicted Colvin unlikable at times. But it’s in the quiet, reflective moments of Colvin’s life when she is alone with her ravaged eye and light desire for the normal suburban life she rejected that Pike is at her most effective. This is a film about the psychological damage of seeing what the rest of us don’t have to as much as it is about the grotesque mess of war on the battlefield.

Colvin wants a child and considers it with the man (Greg Wise) she’s already divorced a couple of times despite having suffered two miscarriages. She may or may not be prone to seeking connection through other convenient liaisons. Her friend tells her she’s an alcoholic and she thinks about convincing a psychiatrist she’s sane so she can leave a rehab clinic she’s an inpatient in before she’s really up to it. She’s plagued by flashbacks and nightmares.
We learn all this about her but, like her, don’t have time to fully process any of it before she and we are whisked off to Iraq. There she meets a freelance photographer, Paul Conroy, (Jamie Dornan – Fifty Shades Freed) and the two quickly form a professional partnership with Colvin very much in the driving seat as to where they go and what risks they take. In one case this involves her confidently flashing a gym membership card to get through a heavily armed checkpoint. The friendship which builds between the two is not explored enough and Dornan is not given enough to do but when the inevitable danger which is foreshadowed throughout the film befalls them it’s intense and a swallow-hard moment.

Even though we know her death is coming , when it actually does, there’s a real sense of loss, largely due to Pike having brought Colvin to life so brilliantly beforehand. I predict we’ll be seeing a lot of Rosamund Pike during awards season for this timely film produced by Charlize Theron about a very modern heroine.

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LFF 2018 Review – Assassination Nation ★★★★

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Assassination Nation Movie Marker

Director: Sam Levinson

Stars: Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse

Released: London Film Festival 2018

When Director, Sam Levinson started writing Assassination Nation over two years ago, he probably had no idea how shockingly relevant this dark comedy would be today. Written as his wife was about to give birth, he credits his fear of raising his child in an increasingly brutal country as the main inspiration behind this vivid satire, depicting the disastrous consequences of living online.

The city of Salem, Massachusetts is about to delve into chaos when a data hacker starts exposing highly porn-ified secrets of its population. Internet search history, digital photos and texts conversations are published. Political careers and marriages end. The hack reaches Salem’s high school whose principal is also targeted and forced to resign, despite claiming his innocence. In need of a scapegoat, the town’s authority (macho detective and police man) finds it in high school head girl, Lily (Odessa Young), whose affair with a married man,  just leaked. Lily and her friends must face the town’s growing hysteria that quickly turns into a blood bath of sexism and brutality.

The film’s core storyline revolves around Lily, who with her friends make up the popular clique of Salem’s High School. The 1990’s had their mysterious virgin nymphs (“Virgin Suicide”) and the 2000s, their bullying princesses (“Mean Girl”) but in 2018, the popular girls are fun, clever and most of all, nasty. Born in a comfortable middle class family, Lily has good grades and a cheeky talent for drawing. What Lily and her friend lack is a reliable grown up figure to look up to. Surrounded by threatening boyfriends and denigrating parents, the only grown-up who pays her some attention is her principal but even he cannot completely give in when she makes a clever accusation of the sexism of internet and social media while defending her pornographic art work.

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There is thin line between victim and executioner in Assassination Nation and Levinson strategically jumps from teasing to threats as if one didn’t exist without the other. Levinson seems less interested in exposing the already well established outcomes of the digital age than exploring the hypocrisy and shaming young people, and particularly young woman, face on a daily basis.

Half way between  Little Red Riding Hood and Nikita, and far from victims, these girls fight back with whatever they are threaten with, usually guns but at times razors and even a shovel. Full of extreme close-ups, the camera is intrusive, and if this closeness can be difficult at first, it quickly helps creates a real connection with those girls.  Surrounded by obvious and familiar characters (naïve head cheerleader, immature boyfriend, cheating husband…), and lifted by invigorating performances by Hari Nef (Bex) and Odessa Young (Lily), these girls can only shine in authenticity and it is hard not to root for them.

Salem’s utter obliviousness takes final form in the slushy sipping little brother, revealed as the hacker. Youngest and quiet, he seemed like a harmless addition to the dinner table and yet could bring a nation to its knee. The warning signs were there, adults chose to ignore them. The film ends with a public letter to a certain president of a certain powerful nation and a feminist call to action against any form of violence and misogyny.

The film will most likely not affect every generation in the same way and will probably swing between anti-sexist fantasy revenge to painfully relevant. Yet there is nothing in this film that can’t be traced back to a recent newspaper headline or twitter feed, regrouped to create a bloody picture of the modern America, kids are made to grow up in.

“Don’t take your anger out on me, I just got here.”

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