Atomic Blonde is based on a 2012 graphic novel called The Coldest City (by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart), a title I doubt many were that familiar with. Charlize Theron was. She snapped up the option rights before it was published and saw it as a vehicle for herself to cut loose, have fun, and show off her affinity for fight choreography thanks to her background in dance. If you don’t walk out of this film with an uncontrollable crush on Theron, then I don’t know what movie you saw, my poor friend.
Set in 1989 Berlin, on the eve of the wall going down, Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is working undercover for her Majesty to uncover who is killing British agents in East Germany. Her local contact is David Percival (James McAvoy), a black-market kingpin and popular mover and shaker. One of his contacts (Eddie Marsan) has committed secret spy files to memory and wants an escape to West Germany. He’s even gotten the attention of other spooks, including French intelligence agent Delphine Lassalle (Sofia Boutella), who gets intimately close to Lorraine. The smuggling of the contact goes bad, lives are lost, and Lorraine has to explain to her superiors (Toby Jones, John Goodman) what went wrong and who is secretly the murderous traitor.
This film could have just as easily been re-titled Sexy Charlize Theron: The Movie. It is a two-hour celebration of the actress and her many formal gifts. Watch her look sexy in this sexy outfit (i.e. every outfit Theron wears or doesn’t wear). Watch her look sexy strutting down a hallway in slow mo. Watch her bathe in ice. Watch her dispatch bad guys with ease, sexily. And then there’s the sapphic romp with Boutella (The Mummy), which is just an explosion of sexy that might be too much for the weaker-hearted audience members to handle. A female friend of mine used to refer to Angelina Jolie in the early 2000s as “walking sex,” a woman that simply oozed sex appeal with her every glance and movement. I think that term deservedly applies to Theron in Atomic Blonde. The surface-level pleasures are rampant, from the 80s chic clothing, to the pumping New Wave soundtrack, to the very stylized way people take long dramatic drags from their cigarettes, the movie exudes a sense of cool with every frame. There is plenty to ogle, and that includes the casual nudity of a 41-year-old Theron, who has plotted this showcase role for years as an unapologetic badass statement and maybe the nonchalant nudity is part of that (“You think women over 40 are unattractive? Well take a good gander at this, Hollywood”).
The film has style to spare but thankfully it also has enough substance to match, and by that, I mean its depiction and development of action. Coming from David Leitch, one of the co-directors of the John Wick franchise, I expected very fluid and well-choreographed action sequences, and Atomic Blonde delivers. I am happy that we have moved away from the Bourne-style docudrama approach of the jangled edits and gone the other direction, treating action sequences like the dance routines they are and allowing an audience to fully take them in and appreciate the skill and artistry. The showstopper everyone will be talking about is an extended fight sequence that closes out the second act. Lorraine ducks into a tenement building and gets into a bruising fight with several goons. This sequence goes down several floors, careens into empty rooms, and eventually ends up in the middle of a speeding car trying to make a desperate escape. It’s filmed to be one long take and the sequence is exhilarating and only becomes more so with every passing minute.
Admirably, Atomic Blonde also brings a sense of realism to all its action. As the fight continues, Lorraine becomes understandably fatigued, as do the baddies. She is not impervious to their attacks. She’s gutsy but still vulnerable, still human. You feel the blows and the intense duration, which makes me marvel all the more at Theron’s sheer balletic grace when it comes to her ass-kicking capabilities. Having an experienced, accomplished fighter opens up the complexity of the action sequences. The stunt work is a consistent joy in this movie and what will make it stand out amidst the pack.
The only major gripe I have with the film is its rather convoluted spy plot. The Cold War as well as East Berlin is just a backdrop for the cool shenanigans. The movie toys with spy movie pastiches but clearly it only amounts to genre window dressing. It’s almost on par with the music, used to evoke a mood and not much more. It feels like even Atomic Blonde recognizes this and just blurts out more nonsensical “who can you trust?” plot mechanics to get to the next sexy set piece. If you don’t already know who the eventual traitor will be by the end of the first act, you haven’t been doing the math. The communist bad guys are an unremarkable lot but they do make for solid punching bags.
The opening scene sets up the death of a British spy as a personal blow to Lorraine (she kept a photo of the two of them in her dresser drawer) but he’s quickly forgotten and never mentioned. His assassination doesn’t even stir any simple impulses of revenge. The non-linear framing device also seems designed just to skip ahead to the good stuff or provide a break in the action where Lorraine’s superiors can provide disapproving, fuddy-duddy commentary about her blasé behavior. The plot is a bit too needlessly complicated and muddled for what the film needs. It’s as if screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) was given the edict to make things obtuse with paranoia and intrigue just long enough. There’s an extended coda that feels like a reshoot; however, it also has several significant plot revelations that completely change your understanding of the characters.
Atomic Blonde is the kind of movie that knocks you around and overpowers you with its spiky attitude. At its best, the movie pulsates with a buzzy rush of adrenaline, setting up dangerous dilemmas for Lorraine to take out with her fists, feet, and any old thing lying around. Her ingenuity during the fight sequences adds a welcomed degree of unpredictability and satisfaction, and it makes the locations become an integral part of the fight choreography as well. There’s a reason I’ve been expending most of my review on the action sequences and sense of style, because there isn’t much more to Atomic Blonde. It’s all retro fashions, stylish artifice, an overeager soundtrack, and lots of too-cool bravado, but unlike say Suicide Squad, it actually pulls it off. It’s not posturing when it works. Theron is a absurdly convincing as a super sexy super agent, and it feels like they dropped her into a James Bond story (with Sofia Boutella as the Bond girl). The added realism and long takes allow the film to feel even more viscerally kinetic. If this is the start of a Charlize Theron franchise then I say we are living in the sexiest of times.
Nate’s Grade: B
Their Finest (not to be confused with Their Finest Hours, even though this is based on a book called Their Finest Hour and a Half) is a disarmingly sweet and poignant true story that resonates with empowerment and the power of creativity. Set at the start of WWII, the British film industry is trying to make ends meet as well as provide morale boosts to the public. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, her best performance yet) goes in for a copywriting job and walks out a hired screenwriter, pegged to write the “women’s parts.” Thanks to the depleted workforce, Catrin has an opportunity she never would have otherwise and she blossoms under the crucible of creative collaboration. This was one aspect of the movie that I was very taken with, as a writer and screenwriter myself, the natural progression of creativity, solving a problem, finding a solution, and the elation that follows. The complications keep coming, first from the British film office who need the movie to be inspirational, then from the divergences from the true story of a pair of French girls who stole their uncle’s boat to rescue soldiers at Dunkirk, then from working with American producers who insist on an American hero who can’t act, and then from natural calamities of scheduling, casting, and oh yeah, the bombing and blitzes that could obliterate everyone. The movie is alive with conflict and feeling and the sweet story of a woman finding her sense of empowerment in the arts. The movie-within-the-movie is filmed to period appropriate techniques, and Bill Nighy is effortlessly amusing as an aging actor still fighting for some scrap of respect in an industry ready to forget him. The insights into the different stages of film production were fun and illuminating. I appreciated that the war isn’t just something in the background but a constant. It upsets the order, takes lives, and is a striking reminder why these people are doing what they’re doing. The film also rhapsodizes the power of the arts, and in particular cinema, in a way that feels reverent without being overly sentimental or self-congratulatory. A great collection of characters is assembled as a ramshackle sort of family with a mission, and the movie drives right into one payoff after another, lifting your spirits and warming your heart. There is a sudden plot turn that will likely disappoint many in the audience eager for a simple happy ending, but I almost view it as industry satire on the difference between American and European cinema tastes. Their Finest is a small gem with sympathetic characters trying their finest and achieving something great. It’s a rich story that deserves its moment in the spotlight and I’d advise seeking it out if possible.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Concussion wants to be a hard-hitting drama exposing the dangers of repetitive head trauma in football and the lengths of the cover-ups and collusion within the NFL, except that movie already exists and is the Frontline documentary League of Denial that was too controversial to air on ESPN. Concussion, in comparison, is an adequate but hopelessly underwhelming film on the Nigerian-born Dr. Omalu (Will Smith) who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of deceased NFL players. The resistance and denials are soft-pedaled, though the movie treats them with heightened dramatic stakes that are unearned. There’s one threatening anonymous phone call but for the most part it feels like Dr. Omalu is just being ignored, and “being ignored” is a hard thing to turn into outstanding dramatic stakes at the movies. The movie doesn’t let the NFL completely off the hook but its critiques have been softened by studio interference (as revealed through the Sony email hack). As a straightforward drama, Concussion is easy to watch and Smith gives an authentic performance that doesn’t have to go to histrionic lengths to communicate his internal struggle. There’s a nice subplot with Omalu courting his eventual wife played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Albert Brooks and Alec Baldwin are strong supporting players. David Morse gets a show-stopping part to show off his acting skills. By the end, it all feels just a little too nice, a little too polished, and a little too easy, both in how it presents a complicated medical discovery and its implications but also the NFL’s response. For an awards-season drama that’s meant to shock and inform, being “easy” is the wrong call.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Note: “League of Denial” is currently available on Netflix streaming and I encourage people to check it out.
The third in the Cornetto trilogy, the series of loving homages to genre films that end up transforming into those films, written by star Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), is so self-assured, so witty, and so stylish, but it’s also the best film Wright has done. While my heart will always bleed for 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, it’s something of a revelation how everything comes together so magically in The World’s End. Every joke, every sight gag, every offhand reference, it somehow is all tied up together or has some greater narrative connection, like the names of the 12 pubs on a pub crawl reunion that discovers an alien invasion. The dialogue is packed with layered humor, with choice bon mots like, “That’s why I drink out of a crazy straw. Not so crazy now, huh?” and, “Or selective memory like that one guy… who? Oh yeah. Me.” Given the previous films, Shaun and 2007’s Hot Fuzz, I knew this would be a funny movie, but I was unprepared for how emotionally adept it is. The characters are given surprising depth and pain and anger, mostly stemming from Pegg’s screw-up alcoholic character desperately trying to relive the good times. The writing is so textured that the characters come across like actual people, and the twists and turns, while entertaining, are far more emotionally grounded than in any previous Wright movie. There is real pain and atonement for these fallible characters, which makes us root for them even more against the robot invaders. Pegg and Nick Frost are terrific again. The action is frenetic and inventive, the laughs are frequent, and the characters are so fully realized that The World’s End isn’t just the best film in a stellar, pop-culture savvy trilogy, it’s also one of the best movies you’ll see this year.
Nate’s Grade: A
Delivering pretty much more of the same, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows isn’t exactly an improvement over the classic detective’s first foray into out-and-out Hollywood action cinema. The real treat of the budding franchise is the comic interplay between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law). Their harried banter makes for the best moments. Once again the plot is overwrought, the side characters underdeveloped (poor original dragon tattooed girl, Noomi Rapace, given absolutely nothing to do but run in a gypsy skirt), mysteries that you give up and just wait for Holmes to explain, and a villain that proves to be lackluster. For Moriarty (Mad Men’s Jared Harris) to be the nemesis, the intellectual equal of Holmes I’m going to need to see much more than this. There is a fine sequence at the very end where Holmes mentally envisions the steps of his attack and then Moriarty joins in: “You think you’re the only one who can do that?” They hold an entire duel fought step-by-step in the imagination. I wanted more experiences like this, but director Guy Ritchie (Snatch) falls back on his signature stylized action sequences of fast whooshing and quick spinning. The action is a step up from the first Holmes, and that will be enough for most ticket-buyers. I’ll admit there is a certain meta-literary charm at watching Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature detective fighting his way through an armed body of baddies. Whatever your feelings were for the 2009 Sherlock Holmes, I’m fairly certain you’ll revisit them in their entirety with Game of Shadows. I know I did.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Sherlock Holmes as a gritty pub-brawler? Before you dismiss the big-budget Hollywood retooling of the literary detective, look back at author Arthur Conan Doyle’s source material. Appearing in over 50 stories, Holmes was a bit of a rude rapscallion who would get into brawls and recreationally use cocaine. It was only until Dr. Watson stepped into his life that Holmes cleaned up and became a proper, respectable gentleman and the figure we know. With stylish director Guy Ritchie (RocknRolla) attached, it appears that this Holmes for a new generation is actually a throwback to his roots.
Famous detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his assistant, Dr. Watson (Jude Law), are at an impasse. Watson wishes to leave Holmes establishment and start a new life with a woman he loves. Holmes is also threatened by Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), an aristocrat in prison for killing women in ritualistic manners of the dark arts. He’s about to be executed when Lord Blackwood promises he will return from the dead, and his murders will continue. Sure enough, after Blackwood is hung by the neck and pronounced dead by Watson, the murders resume and the dead man himself is seen walking among the living. Holmes is on the trail of his resurrected foe when he meets Adler (Rachel McAdams), the woman who broke his heart. She’s employed by a mysterious stranger and becomes mixed up in the deadly hunt to stop Lord Blackwood.
As is quickly becoming commonplace, Downey is the best part of the movie. His combative relationship with Law makes the movie worthwhile. They have a feisty, squabbling chemistry that generates a lot of humor, and they interact like a 1980s buddy cop movie. Their verbal jousting practically saves the movie from collapsing due to the overwrought plot. At its best moments, Sherlock Holmes feels like a buddy cop movie transplanted to Victorian England. Downey is having a hoot as the character and brings a vibrant energy to his role, turning Holmes into an eccentric who gets buggy if he cannot obsess over a case, taking several cues from the Monk playbook of eccentric detective genius. Downey is cocksure and a charming cad, enjoying every moment he can outsmart the competition. Law is more equal than sidekick and plays the straight man to Downey’s neurotic detective. I’m not usually one to bemoan foreign accents, but this is one movie that would benefit from subtitles. The actors don’t necessarily talk in thick accents but they speak so fast that it begins to sound like an unintelligible mumble.
The romantic subplot is a non-starter as Holmes reunites with both The One That Got Away and his Crafty Equal. McAdams is a fine actress with a luminescent smile, but her involvement is really an afterthought. She’s the old flame that always re-enters in those 1980s buddy cop movies. She stays long enough to rekindle some old feelings and provide a figure in need of rescuing. Her storyline is one of several that could have been completely eliminated. The same could be said for Watson’s girlfriend, the steamboat accomplice, the put-upon maid, and many of the conspirators.
The plot for Sherlock Holmes feels like three screenplays were crudely sewn together. There are so many junky side stories and characters that need to be eliminated. It’s just far too busy without anything making real traction. The story is weighed down with expository dialogue and mounting subplots. There are a few sequences that jump forward in time but don’t inform the audience, so we’re left a tad discombobulated. The film jumps immediately into the fray without any pertinent flashbacks or setup, daring the audience to pay attention. At some point in the middle I gave up, having disengaged from the plot and determined to simply wait it out for Holmes to explain what I was missing. I think at one point I was even starting to nod off to sleep, which is a deadly sign for an action movie. The central occult conspiracy has a lot of men in cloaks but no discernible outcome. The movie is littered with conspirators and locations and details that all seem meaningless until Holmes can tie all the jangled pieces together. The script is overloaded and half-cocked and bides its time waiting for Holmes to provide relative clarity. It gets old after a while when only Holmes knows the clues and he won’t share.
You don’t usually think of the intellectual detective in the deerstalker cap as a man of action, but this brash reinterpretation would be acceptable if Holmes found himself in some action sequences that would befit his legendary stature. Ritchie?s hyperbolic shooting style makes for a lot of fast whooshing and quick spinning but it doesn’t add up to many satisfying sequences; the best is probably a battle with Holmes and a giant that destroys a shipyard plank by plank. Ritchie introduces an intriguing action device for this beefed-up Holmes; he mentally envisions the steps of his attack, going from punch to counter punch. This technique is a fun peek into the mind of Holmes and it makes the action easier to follow for the audience. The fact that this narrative action device is used twice in the 30 minutes made me alert. Surely this cool little stylish flourish would come into play during a climactic moment. Nope. This visual quirk is done twice and then curiously never resurfaces. Instead, the movie ends in a climax dotted with the tired routine of atop high places. The showdown is rather weak. Watching Holmes and Watson beat their way through thugs has its meta-literary appeal but Ritchie and his screenwriters fail to summon entertainment amidst the cluttered chaos.
I am a self-described Ritchie fan, though he hasn’t made a good movie since 2001’s Snatch. He lathers on the style right from the opening studio titles being integrated into the cobblestone streets of London. The production design is impressive and the actors seem to be having a game go with the literary legend, but it all comes back to the murky story. Sherlock Holmes could have succeeded on a crackerjack story or on being an entertaining thrill-ride, but it fails in both areas. The nonsensical conspiracy plot feels like a leftover from a bad Dan Brown novel (redundant?) with secret societies and mystic orders and blah blah blah. The characters feel less than real because they aren’t given time to be fleshed out, so they resort to being stock archetypes locked into well-defined place by the fact that the plot gallops from the start. The action is uninspired and occasionally incoherent. Sherlock Holmes as a man of action is an acceptable premise but he needs to be placed in strongly constructed, inventive action sequences. I like Downey and Law, and I especially like their time together, but the movie lets them down. Maybe I was just holding out hope that Holmes would come back and explain the whole movie, providing compelling evidence for mass entertainment that I had been missing. It was never to be.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I wanted to turn this movie off for the first 30 minutes or so and that’s because of Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the deranged optimist that the movie follows. Writer/director Mike Leigh’s latest semi-improvised tale following the English working class centers on a primary school teacher who makes the conscious choice to be happy in life, no matter what life throws her way. Her presence is somewhat exhausting, like a customer who doesn’t know when making jokes has gone from fun to downright annoying. But you know what? Poppy eventually won me over, and I’m all but positive it was the scenes of her and her raging, pessimistic, tightly wound driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) that did it. Before their first driving lesson, I felt like the movie was giving me a slice-of-life that I was hesitant about; Poppy, like anyone who is insanely happy, can be grating. The humor is extremely dry and most of the clever dialogue exchanges will likely go by unnoticed because the actors aren’t delivering big punch lines. Hawkins goes all-out as the unflappable Poppy and she will make you smile through sheer force of will. This was a film I liked more by the time it was winding down, perhaps because Poppy might be easier to take knowing that time is coming to a close much like spending time with a distant relative during the holidays.
Nate’s Grade: B