ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) – Routine Actioner Falls Short

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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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DUNKIRK (2017) – Innovative Movie Brings Miraculous World War II Rescue to Life

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Forget everything you know about traditional storytelling.

DUNKIRK (2017), the new World War II movie by writer/director Christopher Nolan, changes the rules and then some.

As he has been known to do in the past, Christopher Nolan tells this story in a nonlinear fashion, and he does it with a minimum of dialogue and character development.  Yet, the film doesn’t suffer for it.  Nolan has called DUNKIRK his most experimental film, and I would have to agree.

In an interview, Nolan described the soldiers’ experiences at Dunkirk in three parts: those on the beach were there a week, the rescue on the water took a day, and the planes in the air had fuel for one hour.  To tell this story,  Nolan separates it into these three parts- the week on the beach, the day at sea, and the crucial hour in the air, but he does this in a nonlinear fashion, meaning all three events are shown happening concurrently and interspersed with each other.  Surprisingly, the result isn’t confusing. Instead, this bold use of time generates heightened tension and maximum suspense.

DUNKIRK tells the amazing story of the rescue of 338,000 British soldiers from the French port town of Dunkirk in events which transpired from May 26 – June 4, 1940.  The soldiers were surrounded by German forces and the only escape was by sea, which was covered by German planes.  In effect, there was no escape.

However, in what turned out to be a stroke of genius, instead of sending the navy, the British authorities sent out a call for civilian ships to go to Dunkirk, which they did and they miraculously rescued the soldiers.  The smaller civilian ships had the advantage of being able to navigate the shallow waters off the beaches of Dunkirk.  And while militarily speaking Dunkirk was a massive failure, one big surrender and escape mission, in terms of morale, it became a major turning point in the war.  Had the British soldiers been captured, Germany would have advanced, most likely on their way to a successful invasion of Great Britain.  But the soldiers escaped to fight another day, and Churchill turned the event on its head, claiming a moral victory and using it to espouse the spirit of resistance.

On land, the movie follows a young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) on the beaches of Dunkirk as he attempts with his fellow soldiers to survive long enough to be rescued.  On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) set off in their small ship to Dunkirk to assist with the rescue.  And in the air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) do their best to fend off the German planes long enough for the rescue to be a success.

It’s a dramatic yet simple story told in an innovative way by Christopher Nolan. While my favorite Christopher Nolan film remains THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) a close second, his work here on DUNKIRK rivals both these movies.

Of course, the film that set the bar for war movies remains Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).  Is DUNKIRK as disturbing as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN?  No, but it doesn’t have to be.  It’s an effective movie in its own right.

And while the opening moments of DUNKIRK are not as in-your-face horrific as the opening in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, it’s still intense and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.  Young Tommy’s early escapes from death are riveting and tense.  The film is rated PG-13 and as such you won’t see much bloodshed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  R-rated movies these days use CGI blood which often looks fake. There’s nothing fake looking about DUNKIRK.  It all looks very real.

Christopher Nolan purposely chose unknown actors to portray the soldiers on the beach, and there is a minimal of dialogue.  We learn nothing about Tommy’s background, and he and his fellow soldiers do little more than looked dazed, exhausted, and frightened, which is exactly how they are supposed to look.  In most other movies, this lack of character development and lack of dialogue would be troubling, but not so here.  Here in DUNKIRK it comes off as authentic and real.

As such, Fionn Whitehead is effective and believable as Tommy, a character we know little about but we still want him to survive.  All we need to know is he’s on that beach and needs to get home.  In this situation, that’s enough to make his character work.

Aneurin Barnard is equally as good as Gibson, a French soldier Tommy befriends as they try to escape.  Since Gibson is French and speaks no English, he speaks in the movie even less than Tommy.  One Direction band member Harry Styles plays Alex, a soldier Tommy and Gibson rescue.  Styles gives Alex more personality than any other soldier in the film, and he makes Alex a cynical young man who gives away Gibson’s secret, that he is a French soldier impersonating a British one in order to be rescued by the British.

The folks on the boat probably deliver the best performances in the movie.  Mark Rylance is excellent as Mr. Dawson, the man who we learn later lost a son to the war and seems to embrace this mission as a way to save all his other “sons.”  Tom Glynn-Carney as Dawson’s son Peter and Barry Keoghan as Peter’s friend George also have some fine moments.

And Cillian Murphy is very good as the first soldier rescued by Dawson.  Shell-shocked, he resists their attempt to go to Dunkirk to rescue more soldiers.  He does not want to go back, as he is convinced they will die.

Once again, Tom Hardy is playing a role with a minimum of dialogue and with his face covered.  I’m starting to get used to Hardy playing roles where we can’t see his face, from Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) to Mad Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015). As pilot Farrier he only has a handful of lines here.  But that doesn’t stop Hardy from delivering a memorable performance.

Jack Lowden is also very good as Farrier’s fellow pilot Collins.

And while he’s not in the movie a whole lot, Kenneth Branagh also makes his mark as the well-respected Commander Bolton.

In another buck of traditional storytelling, there isn’t a major woman character to be found, but again, it doesn’t hurt this powerhouse movie.

There are a lot of riveting sequences. Tommy’s initial escape from German soldiers gets the film off to a tense start. The sequence where Tommy, Gibson and Alex hide out in an abandoned ship stranded on the beach during low tide just before it is used as target practice by the German soldiers is as suspenseful as it gets.

Scenes of ships being bombed and sunk are harrowing and cinematic.  And the editing during the climactic sequence is second to none.  It’s one of the more suspenseful last acts to a movie I’ve seen in a while.

Nolan also makes full use of sound.  When the planes attack, the sound effects are loud and harsh.  They make you want to cover your ears.  In short, during the battle scenes in DUNKIRK, the audience truly feels as if they are part of the battle.  You’ll want to duck for cover.

Sure, I could have used a bit more dialogue and character development.  Perhaps that would have made this movie perfect for me.  But as it stands, it’s still a pretty remarkable film.

DUNKIRK is a harrowing adventure, a rousing look at a pivotal moment in history, a rescue that had it not happened, would have changed the future of western civilization because the Nazis most likely would have conquered England and France, and who knows what would have happened after that.

But that’s not what happened, thanks to the herculean efforts of hundreds of civilians and their small ships, who against all odds rescued 338,000 trapped British soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.

DUNKIRK tells this improbable story in mind-bending fashion, thanks to the innovative efforts of Christopher Nolan, one of the most talented writer/directors working today.

It’s history brought to life by a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.

—END—

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017) Is Light Comic Fun

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Right off the bat, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017) wins accolades for not being another origin story.

We know how Peter Parker became Spider-Man.  We don’t need to see it happen again.   The film skips this back story and as such plays like a breath of fresh air. And that’s just for starters.  SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING has a lot more going for it, making it yet another Marvel superhero hit.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING actually doesn’t open with Spider-Man at all, but with construction worker Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton).  Toomes and his crew are working clean-up after the massive battle between The Avengers and alien invaders, but he’s pulled off the job by secret government higher-ups, which to Toomes, means money lost, something he needs to support his family.  Bitter, when Toomes realizes his crew still has some of the alien technology in their scrap heap, he decides to keep it, to help even the odds with the elites.

The story jumps eight years ahead where we meet high school sophomore Peter Parker (Tom Holland), ecstatic about his fighting alongside Iron Man and the other Avengers in events seen in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).  In fact, Parker’s mentor is Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) himself, who serves as the voice of reason and caution for the young superhero, reminding him to keep out of trouble and help out with the local little jobs; in short, to be the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  Stark leaves his best buddy Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to keep tabs on Parker, which he does with a tracking device that informs him of Parker’s every move.

Parker finds himself terribly distracted at school, as he’s constantly waiting for that call from Tony Stark to join the Avengers.  He’d like to date Liz (Laura Harrier) but he’s always running away as Spider-Man for one reason or other.  Things grow more complicated when his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon, in a scene-stealing performance) discovers that Peter is Spider-Man, and can hardly contain his excitement.  He wants to tell everyone they know, but Peter reminds him that that is not a good idea.

Eventually, Spider-Man crosses paths with Adrian Toomes, who’s been stealing alien weaponry and selling it on the black market.  Toomes has built himself a flying bird suit from the alien technology and flies through the skies as the Vulture.  And when Peter can’t convince Happy or Tony Stark that the danger from Toomes is very real, he suits up as Spider-Man and takes on the villain on his own.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is basically the Spider-Man story re-told from the perspective of The Avengers.  Ever since Marvel released THE AVENGERS (2012), the superhero films which have followed have pretty much all been tie-ins with that massive Marvel hit.  As someone who loved THE AVENGERS, I like all these tie-ins, as the universe that Marvel has built around these characters is a good one, and the story that continues to evolve remains compelling.

So, pretty much every move that Peter Parker makes in this movie is dominated by his obsession with wanting to join The Avengers.  It’s a far cry from the story told in the Tobe Maguire film, SPIDER-MAN (2002).  But SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING still works because in spite of the AVENGERS connection it keeps to the original spirit of the character in the comics.

As such, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is an extremely light film.  The humor is on target throughout, and a bulk of this movie spends its time with Peter Parker and his high school friends, and these scenes work because both the writing and the acting are superb.

And in a strange juxtaposition, you have this light comical tale intertwined with another darker story featuring one of the better villains we’ve seen in a Marvel movie in a long time, Adrian Toomes/the Vulture, played by Michael Keaton.  It’s an odd combination, but it works.

One of the reasons it works is Toomes’ heavy-handedness makes for a superior foe for young Spider-Man.  You have all these high school scenes, and so you’re half expecting a high school student for a villain, but instead you have Toomes, a guy who is one of the more serious villains we’ve seen in a superhero movie in a long while.

Toomes is also the perfect antithesis to Tony Stark.  In Stark, you have the rich playboy running around playing superhero, while Toomes is the working class man who worked all his life but couldn’t make good for his family, and so he takes an opportunity, albeit an illegal one, to provide tons of money for his family.  It’s thinking that reminded me of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in TV’s classic BREAKING BAD (2008-2013).

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is blessed with a solid cast.  Tom Holland actually debuted as Spider-Man in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), and it was an awesome debut. Holland continues his success here.  His Peter Parker is young, very young, which is perfect because he comes off as a genuine high school student.  His scenes with his friends are among the best in the movie.  And his wise-cracking Spider-Man is still a hoot to watch, although truth be told, I don’t think he has any moments in this movie as out-of-this-world amazing as the fight sequence in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR.

As Peter’s best friend Ned, Jacob Batalon really stands out.  He enjoys a bunch of scene stealing moments, the high school geek whose dream comes true when he finds himself actually working with Spider-Man, someone who knows the Avengers.

Laura Harrier is fine as Peter’s eventual girlfriend Liz, but it’s Zendaya who really stands out here as one of their quirky friends, Michelle.  She’s not in the movie much, but when she is, you can’t help but notice her.  She enjoys many fine little moments.

Robert Downey Jr. has a decent amount of scenes here as Tony Stark, but ultimately, even though he’s always fun to watch, he doesn’t get to do a whole lot.  Don’t look for Iron Man to rush in to save the day.  This is Spider-Man’s movie.

Jon Favreau has plenty of screen time as Happy Hogan, as he’s left in charge of keeping an eye on Peter.  Favreau is always fun in this recurring role, which goes all the way back to IRON MAN (2008), and he’s enjoyable yet again here.  Favreau is a talented guy.  He also directed IRON MAN (2008) as well as a lot of other movies, including THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) and CHEF (2014), in which he also starred.

Chris Evans also shows up as Captain America, in a very humorous bit featuring promotional videos shown at the high school.  Want to teach the merits of physical education?  Pop in a promotional video featuring Captain America!  These videos provide some funny moments.

And Gwyneth Paltrow even makes a brief appearance as Pepper Pots.

But it’s Michael Keaton who really stands out here as Adrian Toomes/the Vulture. First of all, Keaton is a phenomenal actor who keeps getting better with age.  What I liked most about his performance as Toomes is that he makes the guy real.  Toomes is not out to take over the world or the universe. He’s not a shadowy villain without a clear-cut agenda.  He’s a real person with a real goal: after years of playing by the rules and not getting anywhere, he’s broken the rules to better support his family.

And Keaton is more than up to the task of making this guy believable. He also provides a real hardness to the character.  When he says he’s going to kill Spider-Man, you believe him.  In a way, it’s a performance that almost seems out-of-place here, because the rest of the film is so light and comical, while Keaton is dead serious in his scenes.  But it does work and works well, because ultimately it gives young Spider-Man a true test of his mettle.

Keaton gets one of the best sequences in the movie, when Toomey confronts Spider-Man near the end, and he speaks about what they have in common, that they’re both common folks who need to change the rules in order to succeed in life.  At one point, Toomey says, “I know you know what I mean.” It’s a line that resonates, both from Keaton’s delivery and from the knowledge we have of Peter’s life with his Aunt May, as they struggle to make ends meet, making Toomey’s line true.

And speaking of Aunt May, Marisa Tomei is quite effective as the younger sexier aunt of young Peter Parker. So much so that Tony Stark even quips about how hot she is.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING was directed by Jon Watts, who comes off as an old pro here.  The film fits in with the rest of the Marvel movies seamlessly, in spite of the fact that this is the first superhero flick that Watts directed.

The pacing is good, the special effects decent, and the battle scenes are entertaining.  The sequence at the Washington Monument is probably the best action sequence in the film, and the scenes where Peter Parker has to scale the monument and realizes it’s higher than anything he’s climbed before is so effective it’s nearly vertigo-inducing.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING was written by six screenwriters, some of whom have extensive comedic credits, which comes as no surprise, since humor is a strength here.

There’s also an upbeat music score by Michael Giacchino, who’s written a ton of scores over the years, including the superior score to last year’s stand-alone STAR WARS movie, ROGUE ONE (2016).

While SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is available in 3D, I saw a 2D print and liked it just fine.

And yes, there are after credits scenes, two to be exact.  The one at the very end after all the credits does provide a laugh-out-loud moment, so it’s probably worth waiting for.

All in all, I really liked SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.  Is it as good as Marvel’s best?  No.  Is it as good as this year’s earlier superhero hit from DC, WONDER WOMAN (2017)?  Not quite.  But I liked it better than the previous two Marvel entries, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017), and DOCTOR STRANGE (2016).

It’s light, it’s fun, and it features a gritty hard performance by Michael Keaton as one of the better Marvel movie villains yet, the Vulture, whose plans to better his family life are destroying a neighborhood, making him the perfect foe for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

BABY DRIVER (2017) – A Stylish Ride to Nowhere

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The word is out.  Critics and fans alike love BABY DRIVER (2017), the new action movie by writer/director Edgar Wright.

I did not.

And now I have the arduous task of telling you why.

First of all, I should have loved this one, and I went into the theater fully expecting to like it.  After all, it’s got a fantastic cast.  While youngster Ansel Elgort is fine in the lead role as Baby, the best getaway driver on the planet, I’m talking about the supporting cast, which includes Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Bernthal.

It’s got an out-of-this-world soundtrack, and it’s full of stylish high-speed chase scenes meticulously crafted by director Wright.  What’s not to love?

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, here’s what BABY DRIVER is about.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young man who works as a getaway driver for the mysterious Doc (Kevin Spacey).  Baby owes Doc a debt, and so he continually works these jobs to pay off that debt, and he’s in high demand because he’s the best at what he does. His secret is his music, which he is locked into when he drives. Baby had been in a car accident as a kid, which left him with permanent ringing in his ears. Hence, the nonstop music playing through his ear buds, which not only helps him to concentrate, but blocks out all distractions when he drives.

And drive he does.  Doc is constantly organizing heists, and he never uses the same team twice, but he does continually use Baby.  So, depending on the team, Baby drives for the likes of Griff (Jon Bernthal), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his lover/partner in crime Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the unhinged and very dangerous Bats (Jamie Foxx).

But along the way Baby meets the girl of his dreams, Debora (Lily James), a young waitress at the diner he frequents, who shares his passion for music and life.  They fall in love, and suddenly all Baby can think about is working that one last job for Doc, and then getting out completely to live his life with Debora.

If only things were that simple.

BABY DRIVER is the type of movie where the sum of its parts simply doesn’t equal a whole, and I say this, because there were a lot of parts to this movie I liked.  But for everything I liked, there were also issues.

Let’s start with the soundtrack.  Yup, it’s fun and absolutely electrifying, the most satisfying soundtrack since the Awesome Mix from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014). And it plays throughout BABY DRIVER pretty much nonstop.  So much so that it actually drowned out the dialogue at times.  No, I don’t mean it was too loud so that you couldn’t hear the dialogue, but that it was so prevalent it often took the place of the dialogue.  At times, I felt I was watching a feature-length music video, which is not what I’m looking for in a movie.  I wanted more story.  I wanted more characterization.  I got a lot of music.

Then there’s the awesome cast.

As I said, Ansel Elgort is fine in the lead as Baby.   Although there’s not a whole lot for him to do other than exude charm and perform some nifty dance moves.  But he does it all well here. I liked Baby, and of all the characters in the movie, he was the one who was defined the best, and so overall nothing much to complain about here.  Elgort has starred in the DIVERGENT series, and I liked him as Tommy, the young man who becomes Carrie’s prom date in the remake of CARRIE (2013).

Lily James is cute and cuddly as Debora, Baby’s girl, who looks like she walked off the set of a 1950s James Dean movie.

Of the heavy hitters in the supporting cast, Jon Hamm probably fares the best as Buddy. Hamm has that ability to play characters with a dark past and be quite believable at it. He did it with the character Don Draper on the television series MAD MEN (2007-2015), and he does it again here.  He brings an icy coldness to his performance that lets you know that Buddy is not someone you want to cross.

Eiza Gonzalez is beautiful and sexy as Buddy’s partner and lover Darling, but at the end of the day, I wanted to know more about her.

Similarly, while Kevin Spacey is very good as Doc, the man who puts all these operations together, the character is begging for more back story.   Who exactly is this guy?  What are his motives?  Why is he such a father figure to Baby?  Sadly, none of these questions are answered.

Jamie Foxx’s role as Bats, while explosive, and while giving Foxx plenty of opportunities to chew up the scenery, is probably the most traditional of the supporting roles here. Simply put, he’s a hot head whose answer to any problem is killing.

I like Jon Bernthal a lot, and so I was majorly disappointed when his screen time in this one was practically nil.

A much more notable performance belongs to CJ Jones, who plays Baby’s deaf wheelchair bound stepfather, Joseph.  The two care a lot for each other, and Jones and Elgort share some of the more poignant scenes in the movie together.

It was also fun to see Paul Williams on the big screen again in a small bit (no pun intended) as a weapons dealer.

But for most of these characters, with the exception of Baby, I just wanted to know more about them, and the fault here is with the screenplay by Edgar Wright.  This isn’t the first time I’ve had an issue with a Wright screenplay.  While I’ve enjoyed most of his movies, including SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) and SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010), I was not a fan of THE WORLD’S END (2013), as I wasn’t particularly fond of the script in that one.

Ditto here.

As I said, the majority of the characters here are begging for better development.  Also, the main love story between Baby and Debora was a major letdown.  They fall in love pretty quick, but for most of the movie, their relationship is pushed into the background. Debora doesn’t become endangered by Baby’s criminal contacts and dealings until the end, and by that point, it was too late for me.  I expected their relationship to be in danger throughout, but that’s not the case.

And as flashy and as stylish as car chase sequences are here, directed with near perfect precision by Edgar Wright, I wasn’t won over by those either.  There was something lacking.  I never really got the feel of being in the car with these people.

That was something I definitely felt in the similarly themed and plotted movie DRIVE (2011) by director Nicholas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling.  I enjoyed DRIVE more than BABY DRIVER.  DRIVE had a stronger plot, I felt that the characters played by Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan were in constant danger from the very deadly villain play by Albert Brooks, and the car chase scenes really worked for me.  I really felt as if I were in the cars with the characters at ground level.  I didn’t feel that way here about the car chase scenes in BABY DRIVER.

Also, BABY DRIVER is rated R, but for me, it felt like it was rated PG-13.  I never felt the sense of dread I expected when dealing with the types of characters Baby found himself dealing with.

I just didn’t find BABY DRIVER that rough of a movie.  Instead, it’s light and airy, like a chase scene in a TV commercial rather than in an R-rated action movie.  And that’s because at the end of the day, BABY DRIVER is all style, and no substance.

People are raving about BABY DRIVER.

But for the reasons outlined above, I’m not one of them.

—END—

BATMAN (1966) – Adam West’s Portrayal of the Caped Crusader Defined a Generation

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To honor Adam West, who passed away on June 9, 2017, here’s a review of the movie BATMAN (1966).

I started watching the BATMAN TV show (1966-68)  in earnest during its syndication run in the early 1970s and would watch the show nearly every day.  I spent many a summer day as a kid coming home from the beach and then watching BATMAN followed by LOST IN SPACE.

I would also look forward to the movie BATMAN, and back in the day, it was on TV quite a bit, nearly once a month, it seemed, usually on Saturday afternoons.

BATMAN pits Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) not only against one of their supervillains, but four!  That’s right, in this film, Batman fans got to see the Joker (Caesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and the Catwoman (Lee Meriwether).  Their evil plot?  Why, to control the world, of course!

Holy Fantastic Foursome, Batman!

Indeed, Robin.

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The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), and the Joker (Caesar Romero) work at taking over the world in BATMAN (1966).

BATMAN, now called BATMAN:  THE MOVIE, was originally planned to be released before the TV show aired, but when the show went into production ahead of schedule, plans for the movie changed.  The show aired first, and then to capitalize upon the enormous success of the first season, the movie was released in theaters that summer.

BATMAN: THE MOVIE is every bit as fun and as campy as the TV show. It shares the same strengths as the TV series:  the hilariously campy script, and the superior acting  by the players involved, especially Adam West as Batman.

The script here was written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who co-created the TV show with William Dozier.  Semple would go on to write some other campy screenplays as well, including KING KONG (1976), FLASH GORDON (1980), and the final Sean Connery Bond flick NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983).  Semple, Jr. also wrote more serious stuff, screenplays for movies like PAPILLON (1973) and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975).

Here in BATMAN Semple, Jr. captures the camp perfectly, and the film contains many memorable lines.  Some of the best are when Batman and Robin are trying to decipher the Riddler’s riddles.   Like this exchange, for example:

BATMAN (reading a message written in the sky by one of Riddler’s missiles):  What goes up white and comes down yellow and white?

ROBIN:  An egg!

BATMAN (reading another skywritten message):  How do you divide seventeen apples among sixteen people?

ROBIN:  Make applesauce!

BATMAN:  Apples into applesauce.  A unification into one smooth mixture. An egg—nature’s perfect container. The container of all our hopes for the future.

ROBIN:  A unification and a container of hope? United World Organization!

BATMAN (Excitedly):  Precisely, Robin!

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Solving the Riddler’s riddles.

And one of my favorite lines, when Batman tries in vain to dispose of an ignited bomb, but can’t, says exasperatedly into the camera:  “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”

Of course, the humor works here because the actors play it straight.  The running joke of the series is that Batman doesn’t realize he’s funny.  He says all these lines with a straight face.  And while the villains ham things up and then some, they’re not joking around or acting silly.  They really are trying to take over the world.

For a generation, Adam West defined Batman, and when you watch him in this movie, you’ll understand why.  His comedic timing is impeccable.  Granted, this interpretation of Batman isn’t the traditional one, but in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, it worked.

I also think it helped propel Michael Keaton’s darker interpretation of the Caped Crusader in BATMAN (1989) to higher levels of success because for so many, it was the first time they were seeing a darker interpretation on-screen.  Not to take away anything from Keaton’s performance, because he is excellent in the role, but the fact that before Keaton we had West made audiences all the more eager to accept a more serious version. And likewise, becoming a fan of Keaton didn’t take away from being a fan of West.  It wasn’t like “Oh, now the 1960s Batman is outdated.”  Not at all.  It was simply a matter of going forward.

Burt Ward, who before BATMAN had no acting experience, is pretty darn good as Robin as well. His high energy alone is enough to win over legions of fans.  And he really is the Boy Wonder.  His youthful exuberance is infectious, and he always defers to his elder mentor, Batman, with lines like, “Gee, Batman, I didn’t think of it that way,” and “Golly, Batman, when you put it that way.”

And the villains here are out of this world.

Lee Meriwether is terribly sexy as Catwoman/aka Ms. Kitka.  Yes, she poses as a Russian journalist Ms. Kitka to strike up a relationship with Bruce Wayne in order to kidnap him, which sets up one of the more memorable moments in the film for Adam West when at the end of the movie Batman discovers that Catwoman and Ms. Kitka are one in the same.  See, Bruce Wayne had developed quite the crush on Ms. Kitka, and when he sees that she is really the Catwoman, we witness Wayne’s expression from underneath the Batman cowl as the lights go out of his eyes for a moment, only to be replaced by the calm, logic of Batman who sees to it that he’s above this sort of thing.  It’s a great moment for Adam West, the type of thing which made him stand out in both this movie and the series.

Now, Meriwether did not play Catwoman in the series.  She took over the role in the movie from Julie Newmar, who had played Catwoman during Season 1, but was unavailable to do the movie because of a conflict with another project.

Caesar Romero is hilarious as the Joker— a far cry from the later and superior interpretations of the character by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger— even with his painted over mustache, which he refused to shave for the role. Seriously!

Frank Gorshin remains the definitive Riddler with his high octane giggling and skipping. While Gorshin played the Riddler in Season 1 of the series, he skipped Season 2, but would return in Season 3.

Burgess Meredith as the Penguin is the glue which holds the other three villains together in this film.  The Penguin is the one who seems to be pulling the strings and more often than not takes the lead in the villainous proceedings.  Meredith is quite good in the role, and I prefer his interpretation of the Penguin over Danny De Vito’s in BATMAN RETURNS (1992).

Other cast members from the show also appear in the movie.  Alan Napier returns as Alfred, Neil Hamilton is back as Commissioner Gordon, and Stafford Repp once more plays Chief O’Hara.  Madge Blake also returns as Dick Grayson’s Aunt Harriet Cooper, although she doesn’t have any lines in the movie.  Aunt Harriet is an interesting character.  Reportedly, she was featured prominently on the TV show because TV executives feared that two men living together (Bruce and Dick) would give audiences the wrong idea about their relationship, and so Aunt Harriet was written in to live in the same house with them.  Bizarre.

BATMAN was directed Leslie H. Martinson., a director with mostly TV show credits.  He does a nice job with this move.  It’s colorful, full of the signature Batman fight sequences complete with the superimposed “POW!” and “THWACK!” signs, and is well-paced.

There are also plenty of Bat gadgets in this one.  In addition to the Batmobile, there’s the Bat Boat, the Bat Helicopter, the Bat Cycle, the Bat Bazooka, and of course the infamous Bat Shark Repellant in the very famous shark scene, where Batman is attacked by a very fake looking rubber shark.  And there’s also the Penguin Submarine which wreaks havoc under the seas.

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Batman meets Jaws?  A famously silly scene from BATMAN (1966).

Martinson himself passed away only last year, on September 2, 2016, at the age of 101.

There’s also a high-octane music score by Nelson Riddle, although noticeably absent is Neal Hefti’s signature Batman opening theme song.

But the main reason to watch BATMAN is the same reason to watch the TV show, and that is Adam West’s performance as Batman.

I was fortunate to have met Adam West a couple of times at some comics and collectibles shows back in the early 2000s, and his humor in person was very apparent. It seemed to ooze out of him with ease.

Adam West is to Batman as Sean Connery is to James Bond.  Other actors have played the role, and some have put their definitive stamps on the character, but West and Connery took their characters and made them embodiments of a decade.  Like the Beatles, Bond and Batman helped define a generation.

I’ll leave you with Batman’s final line from the movie, as Batman and Robin, after a job well done, prepare to leave the United World building, a line delivered with impeccable timing by Adam West.

Let’s go, but inconspicuously, through the window. We’ll use our Bat Ropes.  Our job is finished.

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Preparing to leave, inconspicuously, through the window.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

WONDER WOMAN (2017) – Superior Superhero Film Puts DC Back on the Map

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It’s been a while, but at long last, we have a DC superhero movie worthy of our attention, and that movie is WONDER WOMAN (2017).

DC has long been operating in the shadow of their competitor, Marvel Comics, who have been churning out one quality superhero movie after another, often several a year, while DC has struggled to make even one hit, often trying to imitate Marvel’s lighter style with disastrous results.  Perhaps the best part of WONDER WOMAN is that it succeeds without being like a Marvel movie at all.  It stands on its own, and it stands tall.

WONDER WOMAN tells the origin story of Diana (Gal Gadot), a princess of the Amazons, living on a secret island, hidden from the rest of humanity by a protective shield of camouflage. She is a little girl on the island populated by female warriors, the strongest being her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen).  As Diana grows to womanhood, she is trained by Antiope (Robin Wright) and soon becomes the fiercest warrior on the island.

When a British World War I pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) flies through the barrier and crashes into the ocean near the island’s shore, Diana swims to his rescue.  Moments later, German soldiers break through the barrier as well and attack the island.  There is a fierce fight and many are killed.

After questioning Steve and learning about the war, Diana decides to go back with him to stop it.  She believes it’s being waged by the god of war, Ares.  Find and kill Ares, and the war will end.

And thus Wonder Woman is born.

The rest of the movie follows Diana’s and Steve’s efforts to thwart the Germans who are planning to unleash a new deadly gas, and to do this, they have to rely on a small team of Steve’s rogue buddies, since officially, the British want to de-escalate the fighting since they are close to signing an armistice.

By far, the best part of WONDER WOMAN is the performance by Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  She is phenomenal here, just as she was in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016),  a deeply flawed film that was better whenever Gadot was on-screen.  She pretty much stole that movie.  Here, she has a movie of her own, and she’s terrific.

Gadot does for Wonder Woman what Robert Downey Jr. has done for Iron Man, and Chris Evans for Captain America.  She has put her stamp on the role and made it her own.

Chris Pine is also very good in the supporting role of Steve Trevor.  Pine makes Trevor a genuine war hero, and better yet, helps Diana see the good in humankind.

While Pine has been enjoying success as Captain Kirk in the new STAR TREK movies, he’s also been churning out some truly fine performances of late, in films like HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) and THE FINEST HOURS (2016).

Trevor’s sidekicks also stand out.  Said Taghmaoui as Sameer, Ewen Bremner as Charlie, and Eugene Brave Rock as The Chief are all memorable.  They’re a lot of fun and are developed rather well as supporting characters, more so than Captain America’s war buddies in CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE FIRST AVENGER (2011).  Taghmaoui in particular has some of the better lines in the movie, like when he’s recounting Diana’s story of her island, saying, “You mean it’s an entire island full of women like her?  Let’s go there!

Likewise, Lucy Davis is enjoyable as Steve Trevor’s secretary, Etta.  She has some fine moments in some comical scenes, like when Steve introduces her to Diana as his secretary, and Diana asks what a secretary does.  Etta tells her, and Diana says, “Where I come from that’s called slavery.”  To which Etta smiles and responds, “I like this girl.”

Connie Nielsen adds class as Diana’s warrior mother Hippolyta, and Robin Wright from TV’s HOUSE OF CARDS is up to the task of training Wonder Woman as Antiope.

One way that WONDER WOMAN is similar to the Marvel superhero films is that it stumbles with its villains, and like the Marvel movies, the fact that the villains are weak doesn’t seem to matter.

Danny Huston plays the main baddie, General Ludendorff, a rather cliché military villain, made even less impressive because Huston he played a similar role in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009).  His performance here offers nothing new.

The far more interesting villain is Dr. Maru, played by Elena Anay.  Dr. Maru wears a mask that covers part of her face, and she’s the main force behind creating the deadly gas.  Anay is very good in the role, but sadly, the character isn’t really developed all that well.

David Thewlis plays another character of note, Sir Patrick, who officially opposes Steve’s mission, but behind the scenes helps him to achieve it.

Patty Jenkins directed WONDER WOMAN and does a nice job.  The film looks awesome, and the action scenes are all done very well.  At times, the pacing is slow, but the story remains interesting throughout.

And that’s because the screenplay by Allan Heinberg is a good one. It does a nice job telling Diana’s origin story, showing how she grew up on the island. The World War I sequences are also well done, but most of all, the strength of this story is its theme of empowering women.  The story presents an all-powerful superhero, who also  happens to be a woman.  And you might be tempted to say, this isn’t news.  Wonder Woman has been around for a long time, but not in the movies she hasn’t.

If you’re not a comic book reader, and you’re basing your superhero experiences on television and the movies, you really don’t know a whole lot about the Wonder Woman character.  As such, it’s a case where audiences don’t really know what they’ve been missing.  They’ll know now.

WONDER WOMAN has a lot to say about women.  Having this latest badass superhero to hit the big screen be a woman is a breath of fresh air, and showing the way women were treated during the World War I years is relevant because similar struggles continue today. Likewise, the way Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor treats Diana and looks out for her, and she for him, sets up a love story that really works.

All in all, WONDER WOMAN is a superior superhero movie, one of the best of its type.

The DC superhero movies are back on the map.  Wonder Woman has saved the day.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017) – Energetic Adventure by Guy Ritchie Tries to Reinvent King Arthur Legend

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KING ARTHUR:  LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017) is director Guy Ritchie’s attempt to do for King Arthur what he did for Sherlock Holmes, namely reinvent the character as an action movie hero.

He almost succeeds.

KING ARTHUR:  LEGEND OF THE SWORD opens with an exciting pre-credit battle sequence featuring giant mastodons and ear-splitting explosions as we witness young Arthur’s father King Uther (Eric Bana) defend his kingdom from attack, only to see it fall when he is betrayed by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law).  Young Arthur is whisked away to safety, and in an energetic montage, we watch as the boy is raised in a brothel, receives martial arts training, and earns his street-smarts as he becomes a man.

The adult Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is the good guy on the block, hanging out with his friends and protecting local innocents from the occasional bullies.  Doesn’t sound much like the Arthur of legend, does it?  That’s because it’s not.  Eventually, Arthur makes his way to the infamous sword in stone, and when he alone can remove it, everyone and his grandmother, including Vortigern, knows who he is.

Arthur seeks vengeance against Vortigern for the death of his parents, while Vortigern sees Arthur as a threat to his kingdom and seeks to annihilate him.   The battle lines are drawn.  May the best man win.  Of course, there’s little doubt here as to who will emerge the victor.

One of the reasons that Guy Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES movies were so successful was that he had Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role as Sherlock Holmes.  Here, as Arthur, he has Charlie Hunnam.  Now, I’m a big fan of Hunnam from his SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2014) days, but he plays Arthur as if he’s still playing motorcycle gang member Jax Teller from SONS.  The script doesn’t help his cause as it includes lots of modern-day language and dialogue.  In fact, at times this movie seemed like SONS OF THE ROUND TABLE, and when Arthur was with his buddies, I half expected Hunnam to turn and say “Hey, Ope.  Where’s Clay?”

So, the fact that the Arthur character doesn’t really take hold here isn’t just Hunnam’s fault.  The writers don’t help him.  I like Hunnam, and he gives an energetic performance, but it just never really won me over.  I felt like I was watching a movie about Jax Teller sent back in a time machine to England in the days of King Arthur.

There were parts of KING ARTHUR:  LEGEND OF THE SWORD that I liked, and there were just as many things about it that I didn’t like.

Usually, in a movie like this, it’s the action scenes that I like the least, as generally they are long, lifeless, and dull, but that wasn’t the case here.  I really liked the action sequences in this one, and the credit for that belongs to director Guy Ritchie. The opening battle sequence with the monstrous mastodons hooked me in immediately and made me take notice that perhaps this film was going to be better than expected.

Later battle scenes are just as lively.  Ritchie’s camera gets right in on the action, and there’s lot of innovative camerawork during these scenes.  The fight sequences here are much more energetic than what I usually see in movies like this.

I really enjoyed both of Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES movies, as well as his previous movie, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015) which was panned by critics.  I liked all three of these movies better than KING ARTHUR, mostly because those films had better scripts.  Ritchie’s work as a director is just as good here as those films, if not better.  Visually and in terms of this being a rousing action movie, the film works.

It also features some pretty cool creatures.  I’ve already mentioned the impressive looking mastodons, but there’s also this creepy sexually charged octopus creature which is a mixture of slimy octopus tentacles and naked women that make it one of the more intriguing beasts I’ve seen in a movie since the days of Ray Harryhausen.  There’s also a giant snake, which of the three, is probably the least impressive but still makes for a very cinematic monster sequence.  There were a couple of times where I thought I was watching a Sinbad movie instead of a King Arthur movie.

The film also has a loud, in-your-face music score by Daniel Pemberton that I liked a lot.  It reminded me of the way James Bernard used to score Hammer Films.  You definitely notice the music. Pemberton also scored Ritchie’s THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E, another soundtrack that I really liked.

The screenplay, however, is another matter.  Written by director Ritchie, Joby Harold, and Lionel Wigram, it tries very hard to re-invent both the character and the legend, giving both modern-day dialogue and motivations. Arthur seems more interested in protecting his friends than inheriting a kingdom.

The snappy dialogue didn’t really work for me here, as it just seemed out-of-place. When Robert Downey Jr. spoke with updated dialogue as Sherlock Holmes, he still sounded like Holmes.  Charlie Hunnam doesn’t sound like Arthur at all.  Neither does anyone else in the cast sound like they belong in the age of Camelot.

Jude Law plays the villainous Vortigern as a cold-hearted mean-spirited devil and delivers a performance that works up to a point.  He is too one-dimensional to be all that memorable a villain.  Still, he’s a better villain than we get in all those Marvel superhero movies, and a film like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017) would have benefitted from a character like Vortigern, who at least has an agenda.

Astrid Beges-Frisbey plays one of the more intriguing characters in the film, The Mage, a woman who can communicate with animals.  I enjoyed her performance a lot and wish she had been in the film even more.

Djimon Hounsou does a nice job as Bedivere, the man who helps Arthur get his kingdom back, but it’s a rather small role and never takes full advantage of Hounsou’s talents.  Eric Bana briefly adds some class to the proceedings in the opening sequence as the ill-fated King Uther, Arthur’s father.

The rest of the cast all do a pretty good job in various small roles, mostly of Arthur’s friends.  Among these folks, I thought Neil Maskell stood out as a character named Back Lack.  He’s in one of the best scenes in the movie, where Vortigern  holds a knife to his throat to get information from Back Lack’s young son who has to watch his dad get mutilated.

The title, KING ARTHUR:  LEGEND OF THE SWORD, also did little for me.  It’s a mouthful, and it’s not particularly memorable.

The same can be said of the movie as a whole.  Strangely, I was most won over by the action scenes and the monsters in this one.  The story and the characters left me wanting more, so much so that I wish director Guy Ritchie was working with a different script entirely.

Still, I wasn’t expecting much, and it was better than I expected.

It reminded me of an old Ray Harryhausen SINBAD movie, re-imagined as a Netflix TV series, only not quite as good.

 

—END—