ATOMIC BLONDE: kicks ass, looks great doing it

Charlize Theron and James McAvoy in ATOMIC BLONDE

Charlize Theron kicks ass and looks great doing it in the most entertaining espionage action thriller Atomic Blonde.  Theron plays a British secret agent on a mission behind the Iron Curtain just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  The MacGuffins that she must recover are a list of clandestine operatives and the double agent who has memorized the list.  She runs into more shady characters than in The Third Man’s Vienna, chief amongst them a debauched British agent gone rogue (James McAvoy).

There is intrigue and backstabbing, double-crossing and  at least one major plot twist.  The brutal action is exquisitely filmed and edited, and the Atomic Blonde qualifies as a full-fledged martial arts movie.  Theron’s character is so Stoli-fuelled, that Stolichnaya Vodka must have paid a fortune for product placement.

Atomic Blonde makes excellent use of a more somber version of 99 luftballons (a 1983 hit by the German group Nena).  There’s a Bond-like opening song, too.

Theron is a superb actress with wide-ranging skills (Monster, The Italian Job, In the Valley of Elah).  And, as we saw in Mad Max: Fury Road, she can credibly carry an action movie.  The rest of the cast is also very good:  McAvoy, Toby Jones, John Goodman, Eddie Marsan and a bunch of scary-looking guys who play commie thugs.

Atomic Blonde is the first feature directing credit for David Leitch, a guy with a long resume as a stunt man as and a stunt coordinator  Leitch sure knows how to film fights and chases, and Atomic Blonde is really a top-notch action film.

BABY DRIVER: an action ballet on wheels

Ansel Elgort in BABY DRIVER
Ansel Elgort in BABY DRIVER

Baby Driver is an uncommonly innovative summer action movie with the action overtly tied to the rhythm of music.  The credit goes to writer-director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), who knows better than to weigh down his genre movies with pretension.  The beauty of Baby Driver is that it doesn’t aspire to be more than it is, but it delivers a surprising added dimension.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a professional getaway driver with preternatural driving skill.  The childhood vehicle accident that killed his parents has left Baby with tinnitus, which he covers with music from his ever-present ear buds and several pockets full of iPods.  This gimmick allows Wright to time his chase scenes (and this is a chase scene movie) to the beat of Baby’s music.  Even when Baby walks down the street, he walks musically, evoking the opening title sequence in Saturday Night Fever.

At one point, Baby loses his wheels and continues his escape on foot; his wild run turns into elegant parkour.  In an early vehicle chase, Baby creates a shell game for the cops by matching his car with two identical ones.  And Wright scores one musical chase with the 1971 song Hocus Pocus from the Dutch group Focus; you’ll find it funny – and, if you were around in the early 1970s – you’ll find it even funnier.

The story is pretty basic: Baby is working off a debt to a crime lord (Kevin Spacey), who pairs him with a differently configured set of  robbers for each heist.  Baby falls in love with Debora (Lily James – Lady Rose MacClare in Downton Abbey) and plans to run away with her after One Last Job.  Of course, because he is partnering with a bunch of psychopaths, things don’t go well, and soon he is imperiled, along with Debora and his beloved deaf foster dad.  So there are lots of reasons for him to chase and be chased.

Wright has the perfect star in the baby faced teen heartthrob Ansel Elgort (Caleb in the Divergent/Allegiant/Insurgent franchise and the star of the teen melodrama The Fault in Our Stars).   Elgort’s mom is a ballet dancer (as is his girlfriend), and he tried on ballet before his acting career.  Elgort naturally moves like a dancer and can overtly walk, run and even drive like he’s dancing.

Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm light up the movie with their performances.  Foxx is terrifying as a murderous psychopath with a hair trigger.  Hamm’s bad guy is less flamboyant at first, but takes over the end of the movie with a relentless and lethal slow burn. Baby’s foster parent is played by CJ Jones, a deaf actor playing a deaf character.  It’s not a very textured role on the page, but Jones brings an unexpectedly deep humanity to his character.

The Mexican actress Eiza González, who has been appearing in action and vampire movies, plays one of the robbers.  Besides being beautiful and sexy, González has a magnetic presence and, in Baby Driver, she’s able to match up with Spacey, Hamm and Foxx.    She’s going to star in an upcoming James Cameron screenplay directed by Robert Rodriguez titled Alita: Battle Angel, which looks like a trashy franchise, but it just might make her a star.

Lily James is winning as a good girl with a wild side, in a much different performance than her good girl with a wild side in Downton Abbey.  The rest of the cast is good, too, down to the bit parts.  And it’s always fun to be surprised by a Paul Williams cameo.

The car stunts are first rate.  Baby Driver doesn’t claim to be a great movie, but it is a damn entertaining one and may well win an Oscar nomination for film editing.

 

FREE FIRE: a witty and fun shoot ’em up

Brie larson in FREE FIRE
Brie Larson in FREE FIRE

The clever and fun action thriller Free Fire begins when Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson introduces both sides of an illegal gun transaction.    It’s 1978, and the hoods, played by Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy and a bunch of less recognizable faces, meetup in a long-abandoned factory.  The deal, of course, goes bad, and they start shooting at each other.  They are all pinned down, and all the action occurs in a confined space.  Pretty quickly, everyone is wounded, and has to crawl, hobble, limp and hop around trying to take out the others.

The factory is a dark and gritty setting, and it’s not going to turn out well, but it’s too light-hearted to call this a neo-noir.  These are boys (and a girl) playing with guns, and everybody is having a lot of fun.  Indeed, Free Fall has the all-in-good-fun tone of The Dirty Dozen and reminds us of a Quentin Tarantino film with much crisper dialogue and less gore.  Two of characters come to especially gruesome ends, but this is not a splatter-a-thon.  And here’s a cinematic First – a tickle attack in the midst of a gunfight.

In another Taratinoesque touch, classic rock, especially Creedence Clearwater Revival, is put to great use on the soundtrack.  But the insertion of a John Denver album into a cassette tape player is a hilarious high point.

Larson leads a set of appealing performances.  Armie Hammer is especially memorable as a particularly suave and smug gun merchant (and wears the same stylish beard sported by The Movie Gourmet in 1978).

Written by director Ben Wheatley and his writing partner Amy Jump, Free Fire is pure Wheatley.  Jump adapted his successful 2016 sci-fi High-Rise from  the J.G. Ballard novel

Leaving the theater, The Wife asked me “Why did I enjoy that movie so much?”, and I replied “Because it didn’t try to be more than it was.”  It tries to be a very witty shoot ’em up, and, as such, it’s very entertaining.

Armie Hammer in FREE FIRE
Armie Hammer in FREE FIRE

Swerve: predictable action and one scary dude

Jason Clarke in SWERVE
Jason Clarke in SWERVE

In the Australian thriller Swerve, a Good Samaritan drifter gets caught up in a deadly entanglement involving a briefcase full of drug money, some very dangerous guys and a sexy woman of uncertain loyalty.  The movie gets its title from some key moments when vehicles swerve and move the plot along.  There’s a lot of convincing action (there not even any dialogue for the first seven minutes and two fatalities), but writer-director Craig Lahiff is a better director than a writer. If you’ve seen a femme fatale and some action thrillers, nothing in the plot will surprise you. Unfortunately, the wife with wandering thighs is played by Emma Booth, who is unable to elevate the Bad Girl to Kathleen Turner/Lana Turner territory.

The best thing about Swerve is that hulking Jason Clarke (Animal Kingdom, Zero Dark Thirty, Lawless) is really good at playing menace and indestructibility, and here he adds a mad glint in his eyes. Plus there some pleasingly absurd touches with marching bands randomly wandering into otherwise tense scenes. Bottom line: Swerve is one hour forty minutes of unsurprising and predictable action peppered with one fun performance.

Swerve is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.

DVD/Stream of the Week: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is another gripping episode from the popular and acclaimed young adult fiction trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Just like The Hunger Games, it’s a well-paced, well-acted and intelligent sci-fi adventure fable. And it’s yet another showcase role for Jennifer Lawrence.

To review, the story is set in the future, where several generations after a rebellion, an authoritarian government plucks teenagers from the formerly rebellious provinces to fight to the death in a forest. It’s all broadcast on reality TV for the entertainment of the masses. Children killing children – it doesn’t get much harsher than that.

This time, the malevolent tyrant picks his gladiators from the winners (i.e., survivors) of the past Games. Because they have survived by killing off the other children, they could constitute their own PTSD support group; they range from emotionally fragile to raging bonkers. This adds a particularly flavorful set of roles, acted especially deliciously by Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Jena Malone.

The main purpose of a second act is to tee up the third, and Catching Fire is very successful, with the help of a new character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who, sadly, will not complete the sequels). Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) does a fine job directing his first Hunger Games movie – and he’s set to direct the final chapter in the trilogy (which will actually be two movies – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and – Part 2).

[Gary Ross, the director of the original The Hunger Games, is in pre-production on two new Jennifer Lawrence movies – Burial Rites from the Hannah Kent novel and Steinbeck’s East of Eden (where Lawrence’s role is the one played by Julie Harris in the 1955 Elia Kazan/James Dean version).]

But, at the end of the day, it’s all about Jennifer Lawrence, who must carry the movie as she plays the determined and resourceful Appalachian heroine. She’s an amazing screen presence, capable of believably portraying both panic attacks and action hero sequences. She’s worth the price of admission all by herself.

The source material may be aimed at tweens, but I haven’t met an adult yet who hasn’t enjoyed and been impressed with The Hunger Games or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. HG: Catching Fire is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – smart, fast-paced and Jennifer Lawrence

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is another gripping episode from the popular and acclaimed young adult fiction trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Just like The Hunger Games, it’s a well-paced, well-acted and intelligent sci-fi adventure fable.  And it’s yet another showcase role for Jennifer Lawrence.

To review, the story is set in the future, where several generations after a rebellion, an authoritarian government plucks teenagers from the formerly rebellious provinces to fight to the death in a forest. It’s all broadcast on reality TV for the entertainment of the masses. Children killing children – it doesn’t get much harsher than that.

This time, the malevolent tyrant picks his gladiators from the winners (i.e., survivors) of the past Games.  Because they have survived by killing off the other children, they could constitute their own PTSD support group; they range from emotionally fragile to raging bonkers.  This adds a particularly flavorful set of roles, acted especially deliciously by Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Jena Malone.

The main purpose of a second act is to tee up the third, and Catching Fire is very successful, with the help of a new character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) does a fine job directing his first Hunger Games movie – and he’s set to direct the final chapter in the trilogy (which will actually be two movies –  The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and – Part 2).

[Gary Ross, the director of the original The Hunger Games, is in pre-production on two new Jennifer Lawrence movies – Burial Rites from the Hannah Kent novel and Steinbeck’s East of Eden (where Lawrence’s role is the one played by Julie Harris in the 1955 Elia Kazan/James Dean version).]

But, at the end of the day, it’s all about Jennifer Lawrence, who must carry the movie as the plays the determined and resourceful Appalachian heroine.  She’s an amazing screen presence, capable of believably portraying both panic attacks and action hero sequences.  She’s worth the price of admission all by herself.

The source material may be aimed at tweens, but I haven’t met an adult yet who hasn’t enjoyed and been impressed with The Hunger Games or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  I’ll probably go see Catching Fire again (this time with The Wife), and I’m looking forward to Mockingjay.

Fast & Furious 6: exciting chases, silliness and two strong women

Michelle Rodriguez in FAST & FURIOUS 6

Driven to an air-conditioned theater by a weekend heat wave, I surprised myself by seeing Fast & Furious 6 (just “Furious 6” in the title sequence).  Now you do not go to a franchise action thriller for strong characters, profound themes or plausible stories; instead you’re looking for fights and chases (and, in my case, air conditioning).  Fortunately, Fast & Furious 6 delivers the cool chase scenes, doesn’t take itself too seriously and offers a couple of strong female performances to boot.

In a smoldering performance, Michelle Rodriguez steals the movie whenever she’s on screen.  I was also delighted to see Gina Carano, whom I liked so much last year in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. Carano is a mixed martial arts star in real life, so she adds authenticity to an action picture. 

Then there’s the dialogue and the plot. One team member says, as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson approaches unseen from behind, “Why do I smell baby oil?”.  That is the ONLY line in Fast & Furious 6 that I hadn’t heard in a movie before.  The movie’s climactic set piece is over 20 minutes of frantic action as an airplane is trying to take off, and I calculated that the runway needed to be at least 68 miles long.  But, because Furious 6 shows the good sense not to linger on anything for longer than a second or two, we don’t mind.

Some female viewers will gag at a male fantasy aspect of Fast & Furious 6.  It’s not a sexual, but a gender behavioral fantasy – the women characters always release the men from any emotional drama.  When a guy opts to leave his wife and their baby for a totally unnecessary suicide mission, she accedes, affirming that he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.  When the hero finds and rescues his old girlfriend, his current girlfriend is a good sport and steps aside with no hard feelings.  It’s a Low Maintenance and No Drama world for the guys. This is the most implausible part of Fast & Furious 6.

Rodriguez: outstanding.  Chases and Carano: good.  Everything else: silly but harmless.

The Dark Knight Rises: Unfortunately, over 2 hours when Catwoman is not on the screen

Well, there’s 2 hours and 44 minutes that I’ll never get back. First, the good news about The Dark Knight Rises.  Anne Hathaway excels as the best Catwoman ever, and the banter between her and Batman crackles.  There are some exceptional CGI effects of Manhattan’s partial destruction. There’s a cool personal hovercraft, the Bat, and an equally cool combo motorcycle/cannon, the Batpod.

Unfortunately, that’s all the good stuff in director Christopher Nolan’s newest chapter of the Batman saga.  The problem is the screenplay, dotted with the corniest of dialogue and laden with pretentious Batman mythology.  When Catwoman tells him “you don’t owe these people any more! You’ve given them everything!”, Batman solemnly replies, “Not everything. Not yet.”

The plot simply exists to transition from action set piece to action set piece.  There are too many times, when a good guy is in peril, that another good guy pops up utterly randomly and just in the nick of time – too many even for a comic book movie.

With her bright wit and lithe sexiness, Hathaway fares far better than her colleagues.   Christian Bale continues his odd husky growl as Batman.   As the villain, an uber buffed Tom Hardy glowers from behind a fearsome mask.  The hackneyed screenplay wastes the rest of the extremely talented cast:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman.  We barely glimpse Liam Neeson.  The captivating Juno Temple is apparently dropped into the story just enough to set her up for the sequel with Gordon-Levitt.

I saw The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX, which worked well for the long shots of NYC and made the fight scenes more chaotic.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: blood-sucking, irony and not much else

OK, so the filmmakers turned the most revered statesman of the 19th Century into an action hero.  I am a Lincoln buff, and I chose not to be offended and to go with it, but…  Seth Grahame-Smith adapted the screenplay from his best-selling novel about Abe avenging his mother by running amok through the vampires with a silver-edged axe. 

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter  has two things going for it.  The first is vampire-killing action scenes and lots of ’em.  The second is the silly irony of putting Abraham Lincoln in a vampire movie.  The silliness is enhanced by the vampire-killing Lincoln being as stiff and humorless as the marble statue in the Lincoln Memorial.  (The real Lincoln was earthy, down-to-earth and very funny.)

Unfortunately, that’s just not enough.  I’ll save you some time and give you the abridged version.  Vampire pops up, gets killed by Abe.  Repeat.

3D or not 3D?  If you MUST see this movie, eschew the extra cost and see it in 2D.