Reviews

Review: Atomic Blonde

Directed by: David Leitch
Written by: Kurt Johnstad
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Bill Skarsgard, James Faulkner
Released: August 3, 2017
Grade: B-

Atomic Blonde
November 1989 would have been a great time to visit Berlin.  After decades of separation, the Berlin Wall came crashing down and a further step was taken towards the unification of East Germany and West Germany.  I was only 12 years old at the time but I can remember watching news footage at the time and realising it was an historical event.

Atomic Blonde is set in Berlin at precisely the same time.  It’s a curious decision from writer Kurt Johnstad given that the film isn’t about the fall of the wall itself.  Rather, it’s a completely fictional spy thriller that as a James Bond-like feel.  The individual who is front and centre to all the action is Lorraine Broughton (Theron), an MI6 agent who has been sent to West Germany to recover a watch that has been stolen from a deceased agent.  Inside the watch is a list of undercover agents that, if it were to fall into the wrong hands, could be hugely damaging to MI6 and the CIA.

The film is structured as a “who’s playing who?” kind of story.  There isn’t a single character that comes across as honest and well-intentioned.  James McAvoy is a fellow agent based in Berlin who has his own agenda.  Sofia Boutella is a French agent who keeps her cards close to her chest.  Eddie Marsan is a Soviet defector looking to exchange information for protection.  John Goodman and Toby Jones are two senior agents working out of London who are trying to take charge of the situation.

The best parts of Atomic Blonde are the fighting sequences.  Lorraine is attacked repeatedly and she uses every trick in the book to stay alive.  It’s one of those movies in that instead of just killing her enemies with a gun, she gets caught up in lengthy battles that involve punching, kicking, battering and strangling (because a simple bullet is too boring).  Director David Leitch is a former stuntman and was an uncredited co-director on the original John Wick.  He has a good eye behind the camera and knows how to create an exciting action scene.

It’s the story which doesn’t enthuse to the same extent.  The characters keep yammering on about the secret list and the dangers of not recovering it.  They’re the two main attractions but the conversations between Charlize Theron and James McAvoy lack spark.  All they seem to do is express their mistrust for the other in a repetitive, not-so-interesting manner.

Lietch has thrown in a 1980s soundtrack which older audiences should appreciate.  I never thought I’d ever hear the song “I Ran” from A Flock of Seagulls used successfully in a movie but it’s now happened twice in a year following on from the Oscar-nominated La La Land.  Other artists to feature here include David Bowie, Queen, George Michael, Duran Duran and The Cure.

It’s great to see a female-led action film but Atomic Blonde is a few notches below John Wick.

 

Review: The Big Sick

Directed by: Michael Showalter
Written by: Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani
Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff
Released: August 3, 2017
Grade: B+

The Big Sick
If you’re a screenwriter looking for inspiration, it’s not a bad idea to look close to home.  Mike Mills wrote about his upbringing in California and his relationship with his mother.  The finished film, 20th Century Women, picked up a much deserved Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.  As another example, Richard Linklater recently admitted that his much acclaimed Before Sunrise was based on a real life encounter that took place in Philadelphia.

39-year-old Kumail Nanjiani has made a name for himself in recent years by starring in HBO’s Silicon Valley.  Before that, he was picking up insignificant roles in feature films.  If you search through the Internet Movie Database, he played characters credited as “Pakistani Chef”, “Gary the Delivery Guy” and “Airfield Security Guard”.  You wouldn’t have picked him as someone to break out from the crowd.

Nanjiani has taken matters into his own hands with The Big Sick.  He wrote the script, cast himself in the leading role, and earned the trust of Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Trainwreck) who serves as one of the film’s two producers.  It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January 2017 and the distribution rights were snapped up for $12 million after a bidding battle between several studios.  It was evident that the film had commercial potential.

Kumail plays himself in the film.  Well, to be clearer, he plays a slightly “alternate universe” version.  He’s a struggling stand-up comedian living in Chicago who is looking for a big break.  He has a close group of friends and they’re giving it their best shot each night in a small comedy club.  What he makes isn’t quite enough to pay the bills and so he moonlights as an Uber driver to help get by.

One night at the club, he meets Emily (Kazan) and the two head back to his place with what appears to be a one night stand.  Things progress however and the two start spending more and more time together.  There’s a problem though.  Kumail is of Pakistani heritage and his loving/interfering mother is intent on arranging a marriage with a Pakistani girl.  He keeps tight lipped about his relationship with Emily but the more it progresses, the harder it becomes to conceal from his family.

An unexpected event suddenly puts everything in perspective.  Emily is struck down by a mysterious virus and is placed in an induced coma at a Chicago hospital.  It’s there where Kumail meets and spends time with Emily’s parents, Beth (Hunter) and Terry (Romano), while also realising just how strongly he feels about her.  Things are going to get messy but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

It may have the appearance of another fabricated Hollywood screenplay but most of this took place.  Nanjiani was a comedian working in Chicago back in 2007, his girlfriend spent more than a week in an induced coma, and he had battles with his family because of the fact he was a Muslim and she was a Christian.  The real Emily co-wrote the screenplay but decided not to play herself in the film.  That responsibility was left to Zoe Kazan (Olive Kitteridge) who is very good (when not lying unconscious on a bed).

Many films have been made about cross-cultural relationships but The Big Sick will win over most in the audience with its delicately balanced mix of comedy and authenticity.  It’s getting to the heart of issues that many people have dealt with whilst also having a laugh along the way. 

 

Review: Dunkirk

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan
Released: July 20, 2017
Grade: A

Dunkirk
Christopher Nolan has made his mark with creative, inventive dramas set in fictional worlds.  Personal favourites include Inception, Memento, Insomnia and The Dark Knight.  It’s why I was surprised when Nolan announced Dunkirk as his next project in December 2015.  This would be a film based on historical events a change of pace was reminiscent of when Steven Spielberg made The Colour Purple back in 1986 (after a decade of action and sci-fi).

Dunkirk may be different in terms of narrative but Nolan’s is working with familiar collaborators and his fingerprints can be clearly seen.  Composer Hans Zimmer has crafted another bold film score that is both fast-paced and reflective.  Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema used a 25kg IMAX camera like a handheld device to create incredible imagies and put audiences “in the moment” as events unfold.  Editor Lee Smith has produced a tight, powerful final cut that successfully weaves many storylines together.

In promoting his movie back in April, Nolan remarked to the press that “Dunkirk is not a war film. It's a survival story and first and foremost a suspense film.”  That comment will make more sense once you’ve seen the finished product.  It is not intended to be a history lesson about the Dunkirk evacuation which began in May 1940.  We’re told next-to-nothing about World War II, the politics and why the British soldiers are even there.  In fact, we don’t even see a single German soldier.  All we know is what we can see – roughly 400,000 British soldiers are stuck on a French beach and need to find a way home before it’s too late.

Three different perspectives are offered.  On the land, we follow Tommy (Whitehead) – a British Army private who has seen many of his friends die in battle and is desperate to escape.  He teams up with two other soldiers (Barnard and Styles) and they work on a plan to circumvent the orders of Commander Bolton (Branagh) get priority access to a rescue ship.

On the sea, we follow Mr Dawson (Rylance) – a brave and/or naïve British man who isn’t part of the navy but is taking his small motor boat across the English Channel to help with the rescue effort.  He is accompanied by his son (Glynn-Carney) and another teenager (Keoghan) and they find a traumatised soldier (Murphy) in the early stages of their travels.

In the air, we follow Farrier (Hardy) – a Royal Air Force pilot who is trying to shoot down German planes and protect British soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach.  He has limited fuel and must make careful choices about his flight path and method of attack.  His situation is made more perilous when the planes of two fellow pilots are shot down and he’s the last man left standing.

Dunkirk is an intense, unrelenting drama from start to finish.  I was a sweaty mess as the closing credits started to roll.  It reminded me of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road in that the action begins from the opening scene and never lets up.  There’s no break in proceedings to provide character introductions or flashbacks to better times.  The cinematography and deafening sound effects make it feel like you’re alongside these people throughout their journey.  Dialogue is sparse.

In a time where films are becoming easier to watch in the comfort of your own home, Dunkirk reminds us that the big screen can still offer an experience for which there is no substitute. 

 

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

Directed by: Matt Reeves
Written by: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Amiah Miller
Released: July 27, 2017
Grade: B+

War For The Planet Of The Apes
I’ve been impressed by the way in which this rebooted franchise has evolved.  Writer-director Matt Reeves has created three distinctly different films that are very different from the original series that was released between 1968 and 1973.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) focused on the humans.  A group of scientists had created a drug which could be used as a possible cure for Alzheimer’s disease.  It was tested on chimpanzees who developed human-like intelligence.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) was set 10 years in the future and focused on both the humans and the apes.  After a man-made virus had wiped out a big percentage of the human population, a battle raged to see who would be the planet’s dominant species.

War for the Planet of the Apes continues the shift in perspective and is told solely from the viewpoint of the apes.  It’s set further into the future where the apes, led by the much-loved Caesar (Serkis), have created a hideaway in a secluded forest.  They wish to live a peaceful existence and have nothing more to do with the human race.

Unfortunately, some of the humans feel otherwise.  Woody Harrelson plays the leader of a rogue military group that wants to capture the apes and use them for his own villainous purposes.  He has other motives too and these become clear later in the film.  Caesar would rather steer clear.  He knows he should take the other apes and flee to safer ground.  Deep down though, he is tired of running and wants revenge against the humans who have killed his family.

Part of this film’s allure is the way it makes you feel sympathetic towards the apes and their plight.  They’re the ones with traits such as warmth and forgiveness.  It’s the humans who come across as “animals” in that they are selfish creatures with no respect for others or their planet.  I’d have preferred more depth to the human side (all we see is the crazy Harrelson) but can understand Reeves bold move in going with the ape perspective.

The script plays its part but another reason audiences will care so passionately for Caesar and the other apes is because of the incredible work of the special effects artists.  Motion capture has been used once again to create apes that look as real as anything else you’ll see on screen.  This is particularly evident when you see the hair, scratches and blemishes during facial close-ups.  It’s a shoe-in for Oscar nomination in the visual effects category.

Culminating with a tense action-packed finale in a snow-covered landscape, War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting end to a worthy trilogy.

 

Review: Paris Can Wait

Directed by: Eleanor Coppola
Written by: Eleanor Coppola
Starring: Diane Lane, Alec Baldwin, Arnaud Viard
Released: July 20, 2017
Grade: C

Paris Can Wait
When it comes to filmmaking, many will be familiar with the surname Coppola.  Francis Ford Coppola won 5 Academy Awards and his directing credits include The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation.  His daughter, Sofia, is an Oscar winning writer with credits including Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette.  His son, Roman, also deserves a mention as a co-writer of The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom alongside Wes Anderson.

One family member who is not so well known is Eleanor Coppola, the matriarch of the household.  She's done a little bit of work in the film industry over the years but this has been predominantly to support her family.  Her most notable credit is a documentary that went behind the scenes of Apocalypse Now entitled Hearts of Darkness.

It’s been a long wait but the 81-year-old has now written and directed her first feature-length dramatic film, Paris Can Wait.  You get a sense that parts have been inspired by her own life since it begins in Cannes, home of one of the world’s great film festivals.  Michael (Baldwin) is a movie producer trying to get one of his big projects back on track.  Anne (Lane) is his supportive wife who is looking to spend some quality time with her husband.

They were supposed to travelling to Paris for a well-earned holiday but Michael is unexpectedly called away to Budapest for a few days on business.  Anne can’t accompany him because she’s been advised not to fly because of an ear infection.  Looking for an alternative, she accepts an offer from Michael’s producing partner, Jacques (Viard), to go on a road trip to Paris.  She can then wait there for her husband to arrive.

With the stage set, the next hour is spent watching Anne and Jacques travel through a bunch of French towns.  They view historical monuments, stay in nice hotels, and gorge themselves on food in some beautiful restaurants.  It’s reminiscent of The Trip series starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan but unfortunately, the conversations shared between Diane Lane and Arnaud Viard aren’t quite as interesting.

While there’s not a lot in terms of plot, the film’s hook is the quasi-relationship that develops between Anne and Jacques.  She’s a married woman and not really interested in advances.  That doesn’t stop him from trying though.  He’s relentless and not particularly subtle.  I wouldn’t describe him as sleazy but his act gets tired quickly.  I was surprised that Anne would even entertain the thought of being with him.

Those that have been to France might enjoy the look of the food and the scenic landscapes but for those after a character-driven drama, Paris Can Wait comes up empty.

 

Review: A Monster Calls

Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Written by: Patrick Ness
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, James Melville
Released: July 27, 2017
Grade: A

A Monster Calls
Award-winning British author Siobhan Dowd had an idea for a novel about young boy dealing with a sick mother and a talking tree who tells him stories.  She’d provide details to a few people and written a rough opening.  That was as far as she got.  Tragically, Dowd was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 and passed away three years later at the age of 47. 

Fellow author Patrick Ness never met Dowd but they shared the same editor at Walker Books.  Ness was told about the idea and asked if it was something he’d like to take on himself.  After an early reluctance, he found himself drawn to the concept and it wasn’t long before he put pen to paper.  A Monster Calls was first published in 2011 and went on to win the prestigious Carnegie Medal, a prize awarded to the best British book for children or young adults.

Ness was worried about giving up the film rights to the novel because of how badly it could be adapted if placed in the wrong hands.  To mitigate that risk, he spent a year coming up with his own screenplay.  There was no guarantee that a movie would even be made.  That changed when Spanish director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) got his hands on the novel and expressed a strong desire in bringing it to the big screen.  Bayona and Ness met and quickly realised that they shared the same vision.

There are lots of great family-orientated films released each year but is a growing predictability and conservatism when it comes to their messages.  Writers tend to keep things light and non-threatening.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with this style of movie.  Last year’s Oscar winner for best animated feature, Zootopia, offered plenty of laughs whilst delving into themes of race, prejudice and discrimination.  It was a great film.

What’s been lacking from the cinematic landscape are more dramatic family films that “cut deep” and tap into the strongest of human emotions.  Perhaps that’s why I was so drawn to A Monster Calls.  It revolves around a 12-year-old named Connor O’Malley (MacDougall) whose mother (Jones) is battling terminal cancer.  He’s an age where he kind of understands what is happening but also has a sense of denial about what lies ahead.

Adding to the gravity of the situation is the fact that Connor is very close with his mother and sees her as a pseudo “best friend”.  He doesn’t have a lot of friends at school and is bullied regularly.  He doesn’t have much of a relationship with his father (Kebbell) who now lives in America.  He doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his nit-picking grandmother (Weaver) who rarely has a smile on her face.

Connor’s way of dealing with his troubled life is to delve into a fantasy world that he has created.  He is visited just after midnight by a giant talking tree (Neeson) who promises to share three stories that will open his eyes to the complexities of the world.  It’s these stories that become of the heart of the film and the lessons learned are of relevance to both kids and adults.

A Monster Calls is a beautiful coming-of-age drama with some wonderful visual imagery.  It delves into the ways we deal with grief whilst also reminding us that there are many different perspectives when looking through the prism of life.