Monday, August 7, 2017

Movie Review - "Atomic Blonde" (2017)

I do not think most spy movies are very effective forms of storytelling. They are, at best, vehicles for well-shot and choreographed action sequences, normally in close-quarters or in chase sequences, but most of the time fail at telling an emotionally impactful narrative. This mostly comes back to our lead character, who is more often than not stoic and immune to the events that are happening around him and comes across as emotionally detatched or uncaring about the world around them.

He'll save the world and look cool while doing it, but if he doesn't give a damn about anything then why should we care about what he does?

That's not to say all spy movies are terrible, since films like "Skyfall" and "Goldfinger" are wonderful, while others like Paul Feig's "Spy" and Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" flipped the spy genre on its head and played it mostly for laughs. But when I watch most spy movies, by the time we reach the end of the second act and everything starts to get tense, I often find myself uninterested in what had come before and what is about to come. I will often remember the action sequences, but find it hard to remember how or why these bits of drama happened in the first place.

David Leitch's "Atomic Blonde" is a perfect example of why I don't care for the spy genre. While the film has stunning visuals and great use of color, which is very reminiscent of Leitch's previous film "John Wick," and some brutal action sequences, the story and characters leave a lot to be desired and ultimately made the experience feel a bit hollow.

Set in 1989 on the eve of the Berlin Wall collapsing, MI6 agent James Gasciogne is killed by KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin for a wristwatch that contains a piece of microfilm that has the names and activity of every active KGB agent in the field, which Yuri plans to sell on the black market to the highest bidder. MI6 sends in their top operative, agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), to find the watch and kill the agent that ousted Gasciogne, known as Agent Satchel. Lorraine also meets with agent David Percival (James McAvoy) who has gone native, but maybe her only way of getting around Berlin.

I'll give "Atomic Blonde" this much - it perfectly captures the feel of the 1980s. From the neon clothing, to the rock music, to the rampant experimental drugs, this film screams of the 80s. This film eats grittiness for breakfast and neon lights for dinner. There's a certain zeitgeist to every decade and "Atomic Blonde" nails what it fells like to live during the 1980s, capped off by a boisterous soundtrack.

The action sequences in "Atomic Blonde" are quite different from what I expected. There are some longer fight sequences that use long takes, and many of them show fatigue and exhaustion in our characters, like they're always fighting with everything they've got. I don't remember many fight scenes where the hero gets tired, but this was a nice change of pace. Watching Charlize Theron trying to catch her breath in the middle of a fight was refreshing and honest.

However, the end result "Atomic Blonde" wants to go for is unsatisfying. This is because Lorraine feels so detached and emotionless from her job. She has the same emotion taking someone's life that you or I would have from going to grocery store to get milk. This works for first two-thirds of the film when she is putting all the pieces together, but once she thinks everything is solved and has to act upon it is when the film starts to fall apart.

This could be less of a problem with "Atomic Blonde" and more of a problem with the narrative style of the spy genre in general. This film could just be following the tropes of James Bond movies by having a protagonist that only cares about finishing the mission. But in any case, this is a trope I wish to see less of.

Overall, "Atomic Blonde" is fun at points, but uninterested at others. The film has a unique feel when it comes to atmosphere and fighting style, with some great cinematography during the action. But the story is dull and the characters are even more bland. If you're going to watch "Atomic Blonde," I would say take its style over substance.

Final Grade: C

Movie Review - "Colossal" (2017)

I missed this monster movie when it was out in theaters, and now I'm glad that I did not spend more than a couple of bucks on this film.

The plot of "Colossal" revolves around Gloria (Anne Hathaway), an unemployed writer and a drunk who moves from New York back to her home town, where she meets up with an old classmate, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). But shortly after she moves back, she learns of a giant monster that attacked Seoul, South Korea, but finds out that it did some very strange movements. After rewatching some footage she finds out the truth - Gloria is in control of that monster.

Now, you'd think this would be a great premise for a comedic giant monster movie, especially with the actors involved in the movie. A drunk that controls the movements of a giant Godzilla-like monster and she knows that has this power. How can you mess that up?

Well, "Colossal" really screws it up quickly.

Let's ignore the ludicrous explanation used to show why Gloria has this power (she has to be at this children's playground at exactly 8:05 a.m. and only has control while she's in the confines of the park) or that Oscar also gets his own robot monster by the same method. We only ever see the monsters through television or computer screens, never getting a full detailed look at the monsters. There are even scenes where monsters fight, but we hardly ever get to see them fighting, just Gloria and Oscar rolling around the ground.

On top of that, I do not ever recall laughing at anything in "Colossal." The film was billed as a comedy, and these is some of the most depressing characters I've seen in a long time. After a while, the film seems to give up on comedy and focuses on an entirely different aspect - that Oscar has been stalking Gloria for years.

Admittedly, "Colossal" gets a bit better when we learn Oscar's true nature - that he feels his life will never amount to anything and this is his way of lashing out on the world. Still, it takes a long time to get to that point, and we first have to watch bland monster sequences, unfunny scenes and witness Anne Hathaway get beat up.

"Colossal" was a chore to get through. As a monster movie, it leaves the audience hanging on those important sequence. As a comedy, there is no life or joy to found here. If you are going to rent or buy a monster movie that just came to DVD or Blu-Ray, go with "Shin Godzilla" before turning to "Colossal" and save yourself a headache.

Final Grade: D

Movie Review - "The Lion in Winter" (1968)

If words could kill, "The Lion in Winter" would be the most brutal film ever made.

Imagine if "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" was set during mediveal times and concerned a "King Lear" type story. That should give you an idea of how uncomfortable "The Lion in Winter" can be, while still being a wordsmith like William Shakespeare. Every word uttered in this film is carefully calculated to be an emotional dagger right into our characters' hearts, as every one of them is overcome with a lust for greed and power.

In the age of King Henry II (Peter O'Toole), he has now become an old man and still has not choosen who will be the next King. So for Christmas, Henry invites his whole family for the holiday, including his estranged sons, the rough and selfish Richard (Anthony Hopkins), the cold and calculating Geoffrey (John Castle), and the inexperienced and naive John (Nigel Terry), as well as his wife Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn), who Henry has imprisoned for the last few years. Henry also invites the young king of France (Timothy Dalton). Henry says he will use this time to decide who will be the next king, mostly leaning towards John since he's the only one Henry likes even if he would be terrible king, while he also tries to make amends for his past sins, all while abusing his power as king over all of them.

"The Lion in Winter" is mostly a game of chess played through words and subtle manipulations of others, played by King Henry and Eleanor. They both have much larger schemes than either wants to show, especially Eleanor who takes every opportunity to goad Henry and show him that he is not as powerful or as perfect as he thinks. Both take absolute delight in knocking the other down a peg, while both scream at the top of their lungs to see who is the loudest.

This is done masterfully through Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn's performances, as they show the deeper parts of Henry and Eleanor's love-hate relationship as well as how much they need each other. These are both cruel, greedy people who want the other acknowledge their brilliance, yet they adore one another because they force the best out of each other. This comes during their quieter moments when the two reflect on when they first met and how their love and need for each other has evolved over the years. Tormenting each other with power plays and mind games has changed their relationship into a furious struggle to maintain dominance, and they would not have it any other way.

Overall, "The Lion in Winter" is a lot of fun, if only for the wordplay, devestating insults and the relationship between Henry and Eleanor. This feels like a medival tragedy only Shakespeare could have written, so it is amazing that writer James Goldman could create such a fascinating screenplay. The pacing is a bit slow at times, but the tension during the final act is absolutley worth it.

Final Grade: B+

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Movie Review - "Dunkirk" (2017)

For all of cinema’s complexities and nuances, there is nothing quite so rewarding as the film that makes us feel rather than think. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy a film that challenges me intellectually, which I would equate to solving a massive puzzle, possibly making you see life from a different perspective. But I often keep coming back to the words that, ironically, Charlie Chaplin once said "We think too much, and feel too little."

A movie that feeds the mind is wonderful, but one that can move the heart is something special.

Nothing in recent memory has moved me quite as much as Christopher Nolan’s "Dunkirk." The mastery of this film lies in its simplicity and quieter moments, letting the visuals speak for themselves rather than overloading everything with dialogue. Watching "Dunkirk" felt like taking in a silent movie with amazing high-definition images, something I would have never expected from Chris Nolan, a man who seems to pride himself on his overly complex, sometimes pretentious, movies.

I walked in to "Dunkirk" expecting a three-hour film about how badly the Allies messed up in World War II with long-winded speeches about the tragedies of war, and instead I ended up walking out of the theater feeling exhilarated and filled with hope. Lots of movies want to do this, but few succeed.

"Dunkirk" succeeds on every single level.

The film tells one of the more heart-warming and uplifting tales of World War II. Set in the town of Dunkirk, France in 1940, the German army has forced over 400,000 British and French soldiers into this small area, with tanks and bombs on one side and the raging ocean on the other. The British army can only afford to send a few ships, which are quickly destroyed by German airplanes and bombers, causing most of the men on the beach to lose hope that they’ll ever be rescued. That is until civilians decide to send out as many of their own boats as possible to save these helpless men.


"Dunkirk" is told through mostly three different perspectives A lowly British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) on the beaches of Dunkirk that does everything he can to make it home, the British pilot (Tom Hardy) that does his best to stop the German planes from reaching the beaches despite running low on fuel, and a elder civilian (Mark Rylance) and his son making their way towards Dunkirk by boat and pick up a shell-shocked British officer (Cillian Murphy) who wants to get as far away from Dunkirk as possible.

I would best describe "Dunkirk" as taking the opening D-Day sequence from "Saving Private Ryan" and stretching it out to an hour and 45 minutes. Intense yet realistic, you are put in the center of a bleak battle, where the German forces are practically taunting these British and French soldiers. The film opens with flyers falling from the sky to show how the Germans have them boxed in and can now pick them off at their leisure. While we never see a German soldier in this film that only adds to the atmosphere - they are fighting a hopeless struggle against a faceless yet intelligent enemy. And all while home is within their reach.

But that just makes their constant need for survival all the more triumphant.

The majority of the film is small vignettes, showing how these men will take any and every extreme to get home. Like how the Private on the beach and another soldier take a wounded man on a stretcher across a long pier to get him on a medical ship, all just to use that as an excuse to get aboard a ship, even when an enemy plane is shooting at the pier. Or an interlude on the civilan boat, when we learn about this boy, George (Barry Keoghan) that they brought along who wanted to make a difference in the world even when no one ever believed in him, even his own father.

Then there are quiet moments, like a shot of an officer simply swimming out into the ocean while the Private watches on - He would rather take his chances crossing the ocean than deal with the Germans from every angle. Little moments like this add to the dread and atmosphere, and it is made even better when most of these scenes have little to no dialogue.

"Dunkirk" is visual storytelling at its finest. It is simple while keeping the stakes as high as possible. It shows emotions and heart through actions and says so much without speaking a single word. The breath-taking cinematography compliments the vast yet bleak landscape and Hans Zimmer provides a tense soundtrack. My only complaint is that the editing makes following each perspective tricky sometimes, especially in the middle of the film, but this is a minor complaint to an otherwise magnificent movie. This film puts you right in the middle of a war and never lets up for a second, so be ready for the most fierce movie experience of the year.

Final Grade: A

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Movie Review - "White Zombie" (1932)

Show of hands - Who wants to watch a film about a Haitian voodoo master killing innocent people and then bringing them back to life as mindless zombies who just kind of stand around looking like their dog just walked away and may not be coming back, with almost incomprehensible dialogue and black face? No one? That does not surprise me in the least.

"White Zombie" stars Bela Lugosi shortly after he made it big with "Dracula" as the voodoo master with a Satan-like goatee and eye brows that would make Groucho Marx jealous. The best thing about his character is his name - Murder Legendre. More parents need to name their children 'Murder' just as a social experiment, especially when you have a last name that sounds like 'Legendary.' That is the best ridiculous movie character name I've heard since Chiper Rage from "After Earth."

The memorable image of "White Zombie" is of Lugosi's creepy stare right into the camera. Though the film uses it so often that feels less terrifying and more like Lugosi is giving a weird look to the guy who took the last of the fried rice at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Then there are times where Lugosi has to do this stare for extended periods of time, or has to literally walk into the camera, or has to have the camera zoom in on him for about a minute.

I'm starting to get the impression this movie did not have a whole lot going for it outside of Lugosi's face.

"White Zombie" falls into the same category as obscenely silly horror films like "The Brain the Wouldn't Die" or movies that you would see on "Mystery Science Theater 3000." It is a harmless movie that is extremely dated and is mostly just good for laughs nowadays. It is the best movie to perfect your Bela Lugosi impression, if you are into that.

Final Grade: D+

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Movie Review - "War for the Planet of the Apes" (2017)

There comes a time when every long running film franchise feels tiresome and repetitive. For some, it comes as quickly as the second film in the series is announced, like "Pirates of the Caribbean" or "The Fast and the Furious," while others have long tern success and have some bad moments sprinkled throughout, like the "Star Trek" film series. And then you have ones that had no business being a franchise in the first place, like Michael Bay's "Transformers."

If you look at any movie franchise with three or more entries, you're sure to find bad moments. The best modern day film trilogy to me is Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" series, even though "The Dark Knight Rises" is filled to the brim with plot holes and does not make any sense if you think about the antagonists' plan for more than five minutes. But the first two entires are so strong and memorable that they overpower the bad moments in the final installment.

Some would argue that a new trilogy can compete with Nolan's take on Batman - the recent reboot of "The Planet of the Apes." I'll admit this series of films is impressive, if only for their technological achievements in making an vast army of apes come to life and making each one a fleshed-out and realistic character. But after watching "War for the Planet of the Apes," I've realized this series has little going for it outside of the motion capture and Andy Serkis' performance as Caesar. By the end of this film, the franchise has become tiresome.

Set a few years after the events of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," a full-blown war has now broken out between the hyper-intelligent apes, led by Caesar (Serkis), and the remaining military forces. One of those factions, the Alpha Omegas', led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), launches a surprise attack on the apes home, killing Caesar's son and wife. Now, Caesar seeks to avenge their deaths and take out the colonel himself, despite the protests of the wise Maurice (Karin Konoval) who says Caesar is becoming more like the treacherous Koba.

As with the previous films, the motion capture technology is spectacular to behold, especially in the larger crowd shots with hundreds of apes in the snowy terrain. I swear there is never this much detail in crowd shots with humans, but to see the vast range of emotions and body language, while also taking note of the fur blown by the wind and snow or the scars on many of the apes is nothing short of impressive. I could stare at this pack of apes trying to escape their icy confines all day and never get tired of it.

But unlike the last film, there is never a standout moment in "War" that makes you appreciate that detail of these effects. In "Dawn" there was a three-minute tracking shot during a pivotal battle sequence, following Koba as he hijacks a tank and we see the vast range of carnage on display. "War" never has that "Wow!" moment that adds to the scope of a world ruled by apes instead of man.

But the biggest disappointment with "War" was its lack of an engaging story. The whole point of this series has been to show how our current world would eventually become a planet where apes evolved from men, and the first two films do this well. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" did this by showing how humans messed everything up in the first place, while the focus of "Dawn" was to show if humans and apes could co-exist peacefully. Even with humanity slowly but surely fading away, the apes remained calm, logical, and emotionally controlled. There was a strong sense of family and warmth that made those scenes with the apes enjoyable, where you could tell that everyone in the camp cares for one another.

"War" does not necessarily try to answer any questions or show something meaningful, only the next step in that escalation. The only humans left now are soldiers, fighting a losing war. The attempts at kindness and peace are gone, and we are at the point where humans would rather solve their problems with a gun.

This is not a bad change, as it does make sense when people are fighting for their way of life against someone they considered animals only a few years ago. But it does remove most of the humanity and heart of this situation. Both sides are forced to fight for most of the film, leaving most of the characters with little to do outside of look stoic or shoot a gun. I ended up feeling more for the humans since they were struggling to survive far more than the apes.

"War for the Planet of the Apes" is like the "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" of the Apes franchise - It's not necessarily a bad movie, but the previous entry told a far more intriguing story with more fleshed-out characters that this one almost feels empty by comparison. Instead of smaller character building moments or the difficult struggles both the common man and apes must face every day, we get action sequences. They are well-made sequences that ultimately showcase man against nature (in more ways than one), but with so much action and limited story there was little reason to care for this planet of apes.

Final Grade: C+

Friday, July 14, 2017

Movie Review - "Spider-Man: Homecoming" (2017)

Spider-Man has always been that superhero who has delicately balanced the line between tragedy and comedy, while pulling off both effectively while also being charming. Characters like Batman and Wolverine offer up a tragic backstory that give the heroes a chance to rise again, while others like Iron Man and Deadpool tend to go all out on ego and the zany antics to show the lighter side.

Spider-Man is trickier, because of his Batman-like backstory of preventing his uncle's death if he was not so full of himself and the challenges of growing up with super powers while learning to balance both his hero and personal lives. But at the same time, our favorite web-head is known for his comedic banter during fight scenes, as well as Peter Parker's typical bumbling nature.

Perhaps it is because of this difficult dual nature that has made Spider-Man difficult to adapt to film in the past - Studios want to aim for one aspect of the Spidey style, but cannot do the other justice and certainly cannot balance both at the same time. Sam Raimi's trilogy with Tobey Maguire went for a dark and sophisticated approach, with little levity outside of J.K. Simmons J. Jonah Jamison or down-right strange sequences that did not belong like the many dance sequences in "Spider-Man 3." While the recent saga with the Amazing Spider-Man films with Andrew Garfield tended to focus more on the comedic side and handled drama and complexity about as well as a fourth-grade stage play.

Both franchises clearly wanted a different interpretation of Spider-Man, but neither was able to capture the full picture of so many people's favorite superhero.

The latest film attempt, "Spider-Man: Homecoming," gets far closer than either film series before this did to nailing the dual nature of the character while still giving us a fresh take on the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe and the best comedy this series has offered so far. This film does not feel like a rehash of previous Spider-Man films, thanks to the natural way characters are written and the confused adolescent performance by Tom Holland.

Set two months after the events of "Captain America: Civil War," teenaged-Peter Parker (Holland) has been readjusting to his new life as the web-crawler hero Spider-Man, while also being under the watchful eye of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Peter wants nothing more than to join the Avengers, but Tony insists that he stay low to the ground and help the little guy, much to Peter's irritation. But when a new villainous gang shows up, led by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who steals alien technology and sells it on the the black market, Peter takes it upon himself to stop Toomes without getting the attention of Iron Man and has to balance his life at school at the same time.

The humor in "Spider-Man: Homecoming" feels genuine, without ever coming across as forced or searching for a joke like many Marvel movies have in the past. Instead of a one-liner for the sake of being funny, we have Spiderman hopelessly searching around Queens trying to help people in need, which results in him stopping someone from breaking into their own car and the whole neighborhood yelling at Spider-Man for setting off the car alarm. Or Peter's nerdy yet enthusiastic friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), who learns early on about Peter's secret identity and spends the rest of the movie asking ridiculous questions about Spider-Man's powers and his high tech suit from Iron Man.

As a result, this ends up being the most memorably funny movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While films like "Iron Man 3" or "Guardians of the Galaxy" had more laugh-out-loud moments, every joke in "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is welcomed and adds to the overall odd-ball charm of this movie.

"Spider-Man: Homecoming" focuses more on the common man than any other Marvel movie, showing how normal people would handle living in a world populated by super soldiers, gods from other realms, and alien invasions that can be thwarted by super heroes. We see this take many sides, including unbridled joy from Peter, mistrust and anger from the villain Toomes, who hates that Tony Stark has his hand in every aspect of the world including the clean up from the alien attack in "The Avengers," and Tony himself who just wants to make a better world for the little guys.

This makes the movie far more down-to-earth and humble than previous entries, especially when a major plot point in this movie is how troublesome getting from New York City to Washington D.C. is for Peter. Far less extravagant than the Avengers movies or "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" but instead we get something far more personal and flawed.

The biggest theme of "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is the need to belong. Peter feels that his purpose in life is to join the Avengers and save the world like Iron Man, but goes about it in a juvenile and arrogant manner that gets him in far more trouble. Toomes starts out as a construction worker hired to clean up after the alien invasion in New York City, but is quickly shut down by Tony Stark's clean-up project, and is forced into black market dealings to keep up with the Avengers and to help his family.

Toomes says early on that to keep up with the changing world, they need to change too. We now see that this world is becoming much more harsh and unforgiving now that powerful being like the Hulk and Thor are around, and extreme measures must be taken to stay relevant. This makes the struggle between Peter and Toomes feel natural and dynamic, where they just want to help the world in their own ways but have a strange way of showing it.

Which is helped even further by spectacular performances from Tom Holland and Michael Keaton, both riding the edge between manic and subtle. They both take absolute delight in being these super powered people, but never to the point where they let the power consume them. They remain grounded in reality, though Holland tends to show his excitement far more often. Keaton's facial expressions come off as crazy, like he's channeling his inner Jack Nicholson, especially when he interrogates Spider-Man for messing up his job. These two consistently keep the film fresh and exciting.

Overall, "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is a great slice-of-life experience in a world overflowing with superheroes. Its diverse cast of zany characters keep it from ever getting stale and were often more exciting to watch than the action sequences. The writing and comedy felt genuine and honest without ever going over-the-top. The pacing was pitch-perfect, never moving too slow to make the film drag but quick enough to always have something interesting going on. The film was able to balance the web-crawler's dual nature well enough that both sides were portrayed fairly, and that is something no other Spider-Man film has been able to achieve.

Final Grade: B