Thursday, 3 August 2017

IN THEATRES: Atomic Blonde & The Big Sick

This week has been crazy. I had the film festival to usher during the day and screenings in the evenings. Somehow I fit in these two. Enjoy my ramblings!

Atomic Blonde
A Cold War action thriller directed by one of the directors of John Wick, starring Furiosa and Gazelle? You bet I'm seeing this!

The name's Broughton. Lorraine Broughton. An MI6 badass parachuted into Berlin just before the Wall comes down, she is tasked with retrieving a MacGuffin that could extend the Cold War for decades.

This movie proves how special John Wick was. Whereas that film offered a master-class in economy at every level of execution, Atomic Blonde is sadly the opposite. All the pieces are there: a charismatic, physically imposing lead; a strong supporting cast; a great 80s soundtrack and visual palette to match; and some terrific set pieces.

However all these elements amount to nothing because it is all in service to a leaden, uninspired script that prevents Atomic Blonde from rising above the merely watchable. It really is bad - there is the unnecessary framing device, which immediately neuters any stakes because we know Theron survives; there is the basic premise ('we need a list') which has been used in a kajillion movies already; and it features a series of pointless double and triple crosses which just drag the movie out.

Let's get to the positives:

Charlize Theron is a beast. Strolling through the movie with the relaxed arrogance of Sean Connery in his prime, if this is her audition for you-know-who then sign me up. Every time she throws someone over her shoulder, or kicks a dude down a flight of stairs, it's fantastic.

Also in Atomic Blonde's favour, this movie avoids a problem John Wick 2 had, which is that the fights never go on too long, and they never feel overly choreographed. It always feels like Theron might lose. This movie manages the trick of making sure that these fights are cool (it's a stylish movie after all), but pays attention to the toll that the blows and bullets have on the characters' bodies. The best set piece is the only one with real stakes: Broughton has to protect a wounded defector while fighting off a group of large men in a stairwell.

And now back into the morass.

While Theron and co-star James McAvoy get cool moments, the characters are never that well-defined. The plot's endless reversals just make it even harder to latch onto these characters and what their motives are.

On a related note, Theron's accent is garbage - I only bring it up because it is revealed late in the piece that she is actually an American deep cover agent. Why? I have no idea, but that plot twist exemplifies the needless amount of plot in this movie. It just gets in the way.

And while it is stylish, the way the movie deploys its flourishes feels very after-the-fact. The day-glo title cards are fine, but aside from the night club (and sex-death) scenes, the movie has a cold, grey palette that drains the movie of life. It speaks to the disconnect between the movie's attempts to balance a more pop sensibility with a grimmer, more real-world aesthetic. It feels like two movies mashed together.

The soundtrack is so odd - songs are dropped in at weird moments, and are mixed so loud that they took me out of the movie. Also (and this is a nit-pick) why is the music from the early eighties? Wasn't there anything more contemporary than 1983?

In a bad sign for Leitch's next film, the movie lacks a sense of humour - there are jokes, but none of them hit, despite the cast's best efforts.

Aside from the script, the easiest thing to pick on is the subplot with Sofia Boutella, which is unbelievably stupid. She plays a green French agent who Broughton ends up having a fling with - it's clearly meant as a spin on the old Bond trope of our hero/ine bedding an exotic femme who may be a bad 'un.

It ends up being an excuse for Leitch to pan his camera up and down their entwined bodies. It is compounded by the resolution of this plot line - Boutella is strangled to death while attired in her underwear FOR NO REASON WHATSOEVER. It's so staged and fetishised that you can't help but feel uncomfortable. It's a real bummer for a movie to push itself as breaking into a macho genre, and then still follow the same tired tropes. Boutella has been one of my favourite new actors, and to see her play such an archaic, throwaway character like this really bums me out. 

Ultimately, Atomic Blonde  is less than the sum of its parts. Here's hoping Theron, MacAvoy and Boutella get some better action vehicles - they are too good to be wasted on half-formed nonsense like this.

The Big Sick
I am a huge fan of the podcast How Did This Get Made? Looking at the credits to this movie, it felt like a list of guests who have been on the show. I had heard great things about this, so on these two disparate impulses, I put it on my list of things to ramble about.

Based on the bizarre true story of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon's relationship, from initial break-up through reconciliation following her induced coma (due to a mystery illness). Throw in his career as a stand up comedian, his relationship with Emily's (played by Zoe Kazan) parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), and his relationship with his own conservative family, and you wind up with The Big Sick.
While I was familiar with Nanjiani and Gordon from their work in other mediums, nothing prepared me for this. I also don't think I can say anything that has not already been said. It's a really great movie that deserves all the plaudits it's been getting.

If you are going to check out one movie this weekend, make it this one.

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