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.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★★
Released: 20th July 2018
Directed By: Ol Parker
Starring: Lily James, Meryl Streep, Cher, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard
Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths
The iconic Swedish pop group said ‘Thank You For The Music!’. An overjoyed studio said ‘Thank You For The Box Office!’.
Sure. Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA’s SOS had a hint of the Borat (Sorry Sacha!) about it. But the summer of 2008 bared witness to a cinematic juggernaut in ‘Mamma Mia’, a jubilant jukebox musical whose sense of joy and fun proved irresistible for audiences. Considering life’s too short. Ten years on we return to the sumptuous setting of Kalokairi Greece with ‘Here We Go Again’, as the sequel fleshes out the timeline, remaining keen to create more cinematic memories.
Content with her unorthodox triple father situation in Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) fierce determination to honour her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) dream of renovating her surroundings into a lavish hotel, coincides with the severe turbulence she’s enduring in her ongoing relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper).
Increasingly doubtful of her own capabilities. The dynamo duo of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie look to bolster her confidence by delving into Donna’s past, as Lily James’ enthused younger incarnation of the character guides us through her eventful youth with the dungarees intact, reliving her initial encounters in 1979 with Sophie’s dads (Hugh Skinner/Jeremy Irvine/Josh Dylan).
Previously unapologetic in its ramshackle charm and high camp. Director Ol Parker to much relief resists applying restraint to its energetic, big-hearted song and dance numbers, whilst technically and narratively tightening up the deficiencies that perhaps plagued its 2008 counterpart for the purists, with a sharper focus on emotional engagement. As a result, it may not be as quick to overwhelm us with its blindingly sunny disposition like its predecessor, occasionally labouring in its first half with its time-hopping.
Yet when those glorious highs arrive like a new take on ‘Dancing Queen’ and Cher’s stellar firework-heavy rendition of ‘Fernando’, whose cameo evoked hearty cheers in the screening i was in. They are now armed with a poignant and reflective slant, reinforcing the ingenuity in how these timeless songs are integrated into the framework, in order to offer fresh interpretations.
Lighting up the screen as a young Donna Sheridan. Lily James captures the carefree spirit and mannerisms of the character superbly, proving a solid counterpart to Meryl Streep’s original performance and Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie in the singing stakes. Speaking of Streep, much has been made about her (lack of?) involvement in this follow-up. Without slipping into spoiler territory, her gorgeous screen moments this time around epitomise why many fans deemed her an instant hit in the first film. Elsewhere, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters continue to provide fantastic farce, stealing much of the script’s zingy dialogue whilst Andy Garcia’s enigmatic hotel manager is a disarming and dashing addition.
It may not have been a sequel we were warming up the vocal chords for. Yet in striking a killer balance between emotive and euphoric. ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is a truly wonderful follow-up that brims with sincerity and show-stopping splendour.
Dig out the spandex and unleash your inner ‘Super Trouper’…
Hotel Artemis ★★★
Released: 20th July 2018
Directed By: Drew Pearce
Starring: Jodie Foster, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Iron Man 3 alum Drew Pearce makes his feature directorial debut with this slick future-set actioner – evoking the neon-tinged hyperbolic aesthetic of John Wick and applying it to a more stripped-down set-up akin to Joe Carnahan’s strangely forgotten Smoking Aces. Hotel Artemis sees the eponymous underworld hospital of the future come under siege by forces both outside and in, with a who’s-who of “hey – it’s….!” figures to bring its gleefully vitriolic war well and truly to life.
On Pearce’s part, Hotel Artemis knows its own playbook pretty well – tense action beats are played with coherence but don’t skimp on imagination, and the staging of it all is first rate. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, leads an engaging cast that includes a wonderfully sleazy Charlie Day, the brilliantly deadpan Sterling K. Brown, and an amusingly in-her-comfort-zone Sofia Boutella. It’s best to keep as much of its casting a surprise as possible, but there’s tons of fun to be had via mere cast reveals to keep proceedings engaging.
On the action front, though, it is strange that Hotel Artemis feels as subdued as it does as regards its own sense of internal rage. Whilst far from a bloodless PG-13, Pearce’s film never quite embeds itself as much in the hyperviolence of its world as you’d expect, or, rather, hope. It’s certainly no John Wick in that sense, and, though there is a decent share of world-building to kick things off, it’s quickly evident that this element of restraint is self-imposed by Pearce’s writing, rather than a by-product of now requisite franchise-creation. Hotel Artemis, incidentally, could easily garner itself a cheap and cheerful sequel or two, were there somehow a demand.
On the back of this pretty solid ninety minute actioner, that’s absolutely a consideration. The world it builds is fleshed out enough to intrigue, the cast are game for an intriguing balance of quirk and creepiness, and Pearce steps up to the director’s chair with unbroken confidence and a comic book sensibility that takes him deftly to the finish line. Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung astonishes as ever, and, while not his showiest work to date, Cliff Martinez’s score fleshes out the bonkers world of Hotel Artemis nicely.
Best aimed at those looking for another round of Smoking Aces-grade action – though, without quite the same singular ferocity – Hotel Artemis is a nice bit of bullet-laden fun with a lively cast and some slick visuals. It’ll never be one of the iconic points on the timeline of action cinema, but it’s a worthy stop-off on the way between the ones that are.
Released: 12th July 2018
Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.
Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.
Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.
Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.
In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.
It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.
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