ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) – Routine Actioner Falls Short

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AtomicBlonde

It’s 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Cold War is about to get turned on its head.  Spies are running this way and that, and secrets are more closely guarded, as no one knows what will happen after the wall falls.

It’s in this world, the frenetic days leading up to the tearing down of the wall, in both East and West Berlin, that ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) takes place.

MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to East Berlin to help  fellow agent David Percival (James McAvoy) extract a man with the code name Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who has in his possession a list of spies which if it falls into the wrong hands would compromise the intelligence agencies of the west, namely Great Britain, the United States, and France.

As such, the CIA is involved, as their man Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) is working closely with MI6 operative and Lorraine’s superior, Eric Gray (Toby Jones).  Likewise, the French also have an agent on the ground in East Berlin, Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), and they’re all working together— or are they?— to successfully get Spyglass out of East Berlin before his secrets fall into the hands of the heavy-handed KGB agents.

Further complicating matters is the knowledge that Spyglass has lost the list, but he also has committed it to memory, so the mission becomes twofold- get Spyglass out of East Berlin alive, and also find the missing list.  And oh yeah.  Someone in the operation is a double agent.  It’s a messy job in a messy city in an even messier time.

ATOMIC BLONDE is an okay movie but falls short of expectations and never really captures the insanity of the waning days of East Berlin before the wall came down, nor does it possess enough style to overcome its story limitations.

Kurt Johnstad wrote the screenplay based on the graphic novel series “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart.  One of the bigger problems I had with ATOMIC BLONDE is for a movie based on a graphic novel, it doesn’t boast the best visuals.  First-time director David Leitch starts off fine with some colorful and energetic opening credits, but after that there isn’t a whole lot visually that captures the graphic novel feel. It seems as if Leitch couldn’t make up his mind whether he was making a colorful adaptation of a graphic novel or a hard-hitting cold war spy thriller.

The film also did not grab me right away and took a while to get going.  The second half is definitely stronger than the first, and there is a brutal and well-executed fight sequence between Lorraine and several KGB thugs towards the end that is by far the best action scene in the movie.  But for the most part the action in ATOMIC BLONDE is standard and by the numbers.

Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay is also nothing to be excited about.  The dialogue is all rather flat, and the story is nothing we haven’t seen before.

ATOMIC BLONDE does boast a strong cast but even the presence of solid veteran actors doesn’t help all that much.

Charlize Theron is a wonderful actress, yet I think she was miscast here as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, as I didn’t find her all that believable in the role.  When she’s kicking the stuffing out of the KGB thugs, these scenes just didn’t ring true for me. Granted, she’s as beautiful as ever, but as the unstoppable indefatigable Lorraine Broughton, I wasn’t buying it.

I enjoyed Theron much more in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015).  Her performance in that movie was rugged and convincing.  Her performance in ATOMIC BLONDE is more like a Tom Cruise performance than a Tom Hardy performance.  The toughness and grit Theron showed in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD isn’t really on display here.

James McAvoy delivers a decent performance as David Percival, but in all honesty, it’s nothing I haven’t seen him do before. Plus, he looks like he walked off the set of SPLIT (2016) and simply put on a coat to blend in on the streets of East Berlin.

Sofia Boutella is okay as French agent Delphine Lasalle, and I enjoyed her more here than in her recent turn as Ahmanet the Mummy in the dreadful THE MUMMY (2017). But she was most memorable as the alien Jaylah in STAR TREK BEYOND (2016).

Veteran actors Toby Jones and John Goodman are on hand as the older agents in the proceedings, Jones representing MI6, and Goodman the CIA.  They are both solid in supporting roles.

In the key role of Spyglass, Eddie Marsen does a decent job.  I actually enjoyed him more in THEIR FINEST (2017), where he played a different kind of agent, one that represents actors, in that superior period piece comedy drama about making a propaganda film about Dunkirk.

Bill Skarsgard, the son of actor Stellan Skarsgard, is memorable as Merkel, one of Lorraine’s contacts in East Berlin. It’s a small role, but I thought he gave one of the better performances in the movie.  Skarsgard will be playing Pennywise in the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s IT (2017).

ATOMIC BLONDE is an okay actioner, but it never really gets into high gear, nor does it possess the pizzazz to sustain its two hour running time.  The script is meh, the dialogue standard, and the story is routine, and while the actors are all solid in their roles, none of them put this film on their backs and carry it to the finish line.  Also, director David Leitch does little to make this one visually exciting or cinematic, save for one extremely well-executed fight scene.

At the end of the day, I expected more from ATOMIC BLONDE.  As it stands, it’s not bad, and it does remain fairly entertaining, but it’s not the in-your-face graphic novel interpretation it should have been.

It’s more sub-atomic than atomic.

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HAIL, CAESAR! (2016) Missing Spark

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hail-caesar-poster-

It’s hit or miss for me with the Coen brothers.

For every Coen movie I like—TRUE GRIT (2010), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), and FARGO (1996), to name a few– there’s another I don’t like—BURN AFTER READING (2008) and INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003) to name a couple.

Their latest movie, HAIL, CAESAR!, a comedy about the the film industry in the 1950s, is one of their misses.

It’s got good ideas, some clever writing, decent acting performances, and an attention to detail that’s second to none, but at the end of the day it’s lacking something, a cohesive spark to both keep the entire film together and lead it to bigger and brighter things.  As it stands, it’s a comedy without much to laugh about and worse yet, not many laughs.

It’s the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood fixer whose job it is to see that everything at Capitol Pictures functions properly.  He’s a problem solver who on any given day is dealing with one issue after another.  That’s Hollywood, for you!  And one thing is for sure, his job is not boring.

In HAIL, CAESAR! Eddie has multiple problems to deal with.  His biggest issue is studio star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has gotten himself kidnapped from the set of the biblical epic they’re shooting, entitled HAIL, CAESAR! 

Meanwhile, his boss has inserted bad acting cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a high profile drama directed by one of their top directors Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).  And if that’s not enough, studio “innocent” DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) has gotten herself pregnant, and an unmarried mother is not the image the studio wants for her, so Eddie sets his sights on getting her married.

HAIL, CAESAR! is a collection of little moments.  Some of them work, while others don’t.   For instance, the scene where Eddie assembles a group of religious leaders in a conference room to get their feedback on the studio’s depiction of Jesus in their movie HAIL, CAESAR! is hilarious- an instant classic.  Likewise, when George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock awakens from his drug-induced slumber and casually strolls into the living room and joins in on the conversation with his kidnappers, it makes for grin-inducing comedy.

Moreover, the film also includes scenes of genuine drama.  The scene near the end where Eddie literally slaps some sense into his star Baird Whitlock is poignant and painful, and sets the stage for Whitlock’s dramatic speech at the end of his Biblical movie, a speech that Clooney knocks out of the park, playing an actor acting over his head in a movie that’s nowhere near as good as his performance in the scene- until he forgets his last line.

The scene where director Laurence Larentz confronts Hobie Doyle and literally forces him to say the line “Would that it were so simple” repeatedly is pointedly painful.

But just as many scenes misfire.  Most of Channing Tatum’s scenes fall flat, and Scarlett Johansson, whose DeeAnna Moran is a really interesting character, is barely in the movie enough to make much of an impact. Her one scene with Jonah Hill is buzzing with energy, but it’s just one scene.

While Tilda Swinton, who was so icy cold in both the NARNIA movies and in SNOWPIERCER (2013), is very good in a dual role as sister reporters’ Thora and Thessaly Thacker, her scenes are neither comedic or all that dramatic.  They’re just sort of there.

Furthermore, George Clooney possesses tremendous comic timing, and yet it is barely on display here.  His kidnap tale has all the makings of a screwball comedy, yet that’s not the direction this movie decides to take.

And Josh Brolin, who I like a lot, is very good here as Eddie Mannix, but it’s a straight role.  He’s the straight man, and all the shenanigans of his actors, directors, and studio heads play off him.  While Brolin is excellent in the role, as he almost always is, the character Eddie Mannix as written isn’t really the strongest character to build a movie around.  Perhaps if he were more comedic- the type of persona which Peter Falk used to play- that might have worked better, but that’s not how the role is written. With his Catholic guilt, it reminded me of a role Spencer Tracy would have played.  The character just doesn’t seem to fit in with the oddball characters surrounding him.

You can’t really fault the actors.  They all do a very good job with what they have, and HAIL, CAESAR! certainly features a phenomenal cast:  Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, and Jonah Hill.

I also enjoyed Alden Ehrenreich as singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle.

By far, the biggest weakness of HAIL, CAESAR! is that it’s simply not that funny, and for a comedy, that is definitely not a good thing!

Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have written a script that captures the flavor of 1950s Hollywood, and they have peppered it with interesting and quirky characters throughout, but what they didn’t do was give these characters in this setting a solid story in which to maneuver.  It’s simply a collection of little moments that never quite gel together in order to build something more.

And central character Eddie Mannix, in spite of a solid performance by Josh Brolin, just isn’t quirky enough to be that guy who holds a movie like this together.  I almost wish George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock had been the central character. Had that been the case, the comedy would have soared.  Clooney’s got that kind of timing.

The cinematography and costumes capture the period nicely, and HAIL, CAESAR! if nothing else is enjoyable to look at. But for a period piece comedy, aesthetics without laughter doesn’t really cut it.

HAIL, CAESAR! is an emphatic title.  Too bad its humor isn’t equally as assertive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

BEST MOVIES OF 2015

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies I saw in 2015:

It Follows poster

10.  IT FOLLOWS- ***- This was my pick for the top horror movie of 2015.  It makes #10 in my overall list.  Terrific horror movie by writer/director David Robert Mitchell.  It’s creative in its execution, suspenseful, has a superior movie score, and is very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early work back in the 1970s.

9. THE MAN FROM UNCLE – *** – a critical and commercial disaster, this film nonetheless worked for me, so much so that it was one of my favorite movies of the year.  I loved the polished direction, the slick music score, and the whole 1960s “spy feel” of the film.

Sure, the two leads could have been more charismatic, but I still found it all terrific fun.

8. CHAPPIE- *** 1/2- one of my favorite science fiction films of the year.  Sure, it’s all very melodramatic and overdramatic, but this tale of a robot with artificial intelligence really worked for me.  Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for the films of writer/director Neill Blomkamp.

7. MAD MAX:  FURY ROAD – *** 1/2- my pick for the best science fiction movie of the year.   George Miller, who directed the original films starring Mel Gibson, returns to his roots here with a film that is exceedingly exciting and features some of the most imaginative chase scenes I’ve seen in quite a long time.  Tom Hardy is fine as Max, but it’s Charlize Theron who steals the show in this one as tough as nails heroine Imperator Furiosa.

mad max fury road poster

6. AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON – *** 1/2 – Excellent sequel to THE AVENGERS.  I love the Marvel superhero films, and their AVENGERS movies are among their best.  Nonstop entertainment.

5. THE BIG SHORT.-*** 1/2

I really enjoyed this intriguing drama about the home mortgage crisis and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008.  Christian Bale is getting all the hype with buzz of a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he’s good here, but I liked Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling even more. Well-acted, well-written movie that tells a story that’s a real eye opener.

Written and directed by Adam McCay, most known for his comedic work, directing such films as ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010).  McCay puts this background to good use as THE BIG SHORT, in spite of its heavy and oftentimes depressing subject matter, is very light and quirky in tone.  McCay also wrote the screenplay for the Marvel hit ANT-MAN (2015).

Brad Pitt rounds out the solid cast.

4. BRIDGE OF SPIES – ****- The main reason I liked this Steven Spielberg Cold War thriller was Tom Hanks’ performance.  I’m not always a big Tom Hanks fan, but he knocks the ball out of the ballpark with his spot on performance as an attorney asked to defend a Soviet spy.  The story which follows is captivating and riveting.

In addition to Hanks’ standout performance, Mark Rylance is also excellent as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  This is also quite the period piece, as Spielberg meticulously captures the Cold War period.  At times, you feel like you’re watching a dramatic museum exhibit.

3.  JOY-**** -Critics did not like this comedy/drama by writer/director David O. Russell which tells the story of Joy Mangano, the woman who created the Miracle Mop, but I absolutely loved this one.  Jennifer Lawrence turns in a phenomenal performance as Joy, and this movie clearly belongs to her.  A quirky, funny film that is every bit emotionally moving as it is humorous.  It reminded me a lot of Russell and Lawrence’s earlier pairing, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The fine supporting cast includes Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, and Dascha Polanco.

This cast led by Jennifer Lawrence combined with the creative directorial style of David O. Russell makes JOY one of my favorite films of the year.

2.  SPOTLIGHT-**** – For me, SPOTLIGHT was the most disturbing film of the year, and its second best.  It tells the story of how The Boston Globe exposed the scandal in the Catholic Church and uncovered truths which before this story most people refused to believe.  The number of abuse cases in Boston alone were staggering.

The film is amazingly underplayed, and it’s able to do this because the story itself is so horrifying.  All it has to do is tell its story, and that’s enough.

SPOTLIGHT is a fine example of a true life horror story that is more disturbing than most genre horror films.  In addition, it’s also one of the best movies about newspapers and reporters ever made.

Amazingly well-acted, its cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Brian D’Arcy James.

spotlight 2015 poster

1. SICARIO – **** – Any one of my top 5 picks could have been my number movie of the year.  They’re all that good.

However, my personal favorite of the year because it both pushed all the right buttons and is the type of movie I love- a riveting suspenseful dark thriller- is SICARIO.

I loved this thriller about an FBI agent thrown into the midst of the drug war with a Mexican cartel.  Emily Blunt is outstanding as FBI agent Kate Macer.  Even better is Benecio Del Toro as Alejandro, a mysterious hitman who in spite of his shadowy cold-blooded agenda, always seems to have Macer’s back, even when he holds a gun to her head.

Josh Brolin is also excellent as a calm, cool, and confident government agent who recruits Macer but is too shady to earn her trust.

Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the SONS OF ANARCHY actor who has a lot of other acting credits as well.  This is his first screenplay.  It’s a good one.

Some of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in a while.  A must-see movie.  My pick for the #1 movie of 2015.

sicario poster

And that’s my Top 10 List for 2015.  What’s yours?

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

YOUR MOVIE LISTS: The ROCKY Movies

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YOUR MOVIE LISTSROCKY Movies

 

By

 

Michael ArrudaRocky - poster

 

With the upcoming release of CREED (2015) on November 25, the latest movie to feature Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), here’s a look back at the ROCKY movies:

 

 

ROCKY (1976)

Directed by John G. Avildsen

Screenplay by Sylvester Stallone

Rocky:  Sylvester Stallone

Adrian:  Talia Shire

Paulie:  Burt Young

Apollo:  Carl Weathers

Mickey:  Burgess Meredith

Duke: Tony Burton

Music by Bill Conti

Running Time:  119 minutes

 

The original, the Oscar winner, the movie that made Sylvester Stallone a star.  While Stallone was nominated for two Academy Awards for ROCKY, for Best Actor and for Best Screenplay, he did not win either award.  Neither did Talia Shire for Best Actress.  However, John G. Avildsen won for Best Director, and ROCKY took home Best Picture honors.

 

 

 

ROCKY II (1979)

Directed by Sylvester Stallone

Screenplay by Sylvester Stallone

Rocky:  Sylvester Stallone

Adrian:  Talia Shire

Paulie:  Burt Young

Apollo:  Carl Weathers

Mickey:  Burgess Meredith

Duke: Tony Burton

Music by Bill Conti

Running Time:  119 Minutes

 

This is actually the first ROCKY movie I ever saw, and as such, it remains my personal favorite ROCKY film.

 

 

 

 

 

ROCKY III (1982)

Directed by Sylvester Stallone

Screenplay by Sylvester Stallone

Stallone and Mr. T. square off in ROCKY III.

Stallone and Mr. T. square off in ROCKY III.

Rocky:  Sylvester Stallone

Adrian:  Talia Shire

Paulie:  Burt Young

Apollo:  Carl Weathers

Mickey:  Burgess Meredith

Duke: Tony Burton

Clubber Lang:  Mr. T

Thunderlips:  Hulk Hogan

Music by Bill Conti

Running Time:  99 minutes

 

The one with Mr. T.  It’s also the first ROCKY movie I saw at the movie theater.

 

 

 

ROCKY IV (1985)

Directed by Sylvester Stallone

Screenplay by Sylvester Stallone

Rocky:  Sylvester Stallone

Adrian:  Talia Shire

It's East vs. West, Lundgren vs. Stallone in ROCKY IV.

It’s East vs. West, Lundgren vs. Stallone in ROCKY IV.

Paulie:  Burt Young

Apollo:  Carl Weathers

Duke: Tony Burton

Drago:  Dolph Lundgren

Ludmilla:  Brigitte Nielsen

Music by Vince DiCola

Running Time:  91 minutes

 

I was hugely disappointed by this fourth ROCKY movie when it first came out, but I was clearly in the minority as ROCKY IV has the distinction of being the biggest money maker of the entire series.  Admittedly, this one has grown on me over the years.

 

 

 

ROCKY V (1990)

Directed by John G. Avildsen

Screenplay by Sylvester Stallone

Rocky:  Sylvester Stallone

Adrian:  Talia Shire

Paulie:  Burt Young

Duke: Tony Burton

Tommy “Machine” Gunn:  Tommy Morrison

Music by Bill Conti

Running Time:  104 minutes

 

 

The most forgettable of the ROCKY movies, and clearly the weakest film in the series.

 

 

ROCKY BALBOA (2006)

Directed by Sylvester Stallone

Screenplay by Sylvester Stallone

Rocky:  Sylvester Stallone

One final bout. The thrilling climactic match in ROCKY BALBOA (2006).

One final bout. The thrilling climactic match in ROCKY BALBOA (2006).

Paulie:  Burt Young

Duke: Tony Burton

Mason “The Line” Dixon:  Antonio Tarver

Marie:  Geraldine Hughes

Robert Balboa Jr.:  Milo Ventimiglia

Music by Bill Conti

Running Time:  102 minutes

 

An excellent movie, ROCKY BALBOA is one of the best in the series, as this tale of Rocky coming out of retirement for one last bout is actually pretty darn believable, and its climactic boxing match is compelling to boot.

 

 

 

 

CREED (2015)

Directed by Ryan Coogler

Screenplay by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington

Adonis Johnson:  Michael B. Jordan

Rocky Balboa:  Sylvester Stallone

Bianca:  Tessa Thompson

Mary Ann Creed:  Phylicia Rashad

Music by Ludwig Goransson

Running Time:  132 minutes

 

This tale of Apollo Creed’s son will feature Rocky Balboa as the young boxer’s mentor.  Looking forward to it.

 

This will also be the first film in the series not written by Sylvester Stallone.

 

That’s it for now!

 

Thanks for reading.

 

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) BRINGS HISTORICAL MOMENT TO LIFE

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Movie Review:  BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

By bridge_of_spies

Michael Arruda

 

Tom Hanks is sensational in BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015), Steven Spielberg’s compelling Cold War thriller based on the true story of an American lawyer who defends an accused Soviet spy.

Sure, Hanks is almost always good, but even so, this is probably my favorite Hanks’ performances in quite some time.  While he was very good in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) I enjoyed him more here in BRIDGE OF SPIES.  It might be my favorite Hanks’ performance since way back when in APOLLO 13 (1995).

BRIDGE OF SPIES opens in 1957 with the arrest of accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).  The U.S. government asks insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend him, and Donovan reluctantly agrees.  It quickly becomes clear to Donovan that the U.S. justice system has already made up its mind about Abel’s guilt, and he is heavily criticized for putting up a valid defense for the man. This does not sit well with Donovan, and the more pressure he receives to just show up and let Abel be found guilty, the harder he works at defending Abel.

During this process, Donovan gets to know Abel quite well and a friendship of mutual respect develops.  Later, when Air Force Lieutenant Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down and captured for the Soviets, a trade is suggested, Powers for Abel.  The CIA asks Donovan to broker the trade, and to travel to East Berlin to do it.  It’s a sensitive operation, as neither government will publicly acknowledge what’s going on, and so Donovan will be working in East Berlin on his own.  Because of his feelings for Abel, Donovan agrees, and he finds himself embroiled in Cold War espionage as he has to deal with the Soviets, the East Germans, the lack of public support from the U.S., and his growing fear that by arranging this deal he might be sending Abel to his death at the hand of the Soviets.

The main reason to see BRIDGE OF SPIES is Tom Hanks because he delivers his best acting performance in years, but there are also plenty of other reasons to see it as well.

For starters, the director is Steven Spielberg.  It’s hard to say if BRIDGE OF SPIES is better than Spielberg’s previous effort, LINCOLN (2012), a movie I liked a lot.  It’s certainly equally as good.  In some ways, it is better, as it definitely generates more suspense and drama than LINCOLN did.  In terms of historical dramas, they’re on equal footing, but BRIDGE OF SPIES is paced slightly better and is definitely more intriguing.  Both films feature phenomenal acting performances by their two lead actors, Tom Hanks here, and Daniel Day Lewis in LINCOLN.

In BRIDGE OF SPIES, Spielberg painstakingly recreates the Cold War period and thoroughly captures the feel of the time.  Sets, costumes, and make-up are all topnotch, and the images memorable, some of them haunting, like the scene where Hanks witnesses the barbaric activity at the Berlin Wall from a passenger train.

The acting is superb throughout, with the other stand-out besides Hanks being Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel.  The scene where he recounts the story from his childhood about his father’s friend, who he relates to Hanks’ James Donovan, is another of the film’s highlights.

The screenplay by Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen pretty much tells a straightforward story with the emphasis placed on James Donovan and how this ordeal both changed and shaped his life.  It also details Donovan’s relationship with Rudolf Abel, and how the two men developed a mutual respect for one another.  It’s a gripping historical drama, and it’s honest and direct.  Don’t expect the quirkiness of some of Ethan and Joel Coen’s other movies, like FARGO (1996) and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007).

BRIDGE OF SPIES is the whole package.  It’s got one of the all-time best directors in Steven Spielberg at the helm, phenomenal acting led by Tom Hanks, a superb script, and cinematography worthy of an artistic painting.  It’s a satisfying cinematic event that is both entertaining and rewarding.  Moreover, it succeeds in bringing a moment in our history to life.

BRIDGE OF SPIES is one bridge you’ll definitely want to cross.

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