Monday, November 20, 2017

Atomic Blonde - Sound, Fashion and Fury

Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) emerges from a bathtub full of ice water and sits on the edge, battered, bruised and bloodied. This is how we meet our main character in Atomic Blonde. It's 1989 in Berlin with riots in the streets and the prospect of the Berlin Wall falling is a silent prayer on the lips of people in the East and the West. Lorraine has some explaining to do because her mission from MI6 (British Intelligence) to obtain a missing list of double agents has not exactly gone as planned. The story begins at the end as Lorraine tells all to a British agent (Toby Jones) and a not very welcome official from the CIA (John Goodman). This is the set up for this crazy, frenetic, stylized take on a not very cloak and dagger story. Ok there are plenty of sharp objects in play but I didn't see an actual dagger anywhere.

From the moment Lorraine's feet touch the ground in Berlin to meet fellow agent David Percival (James McAvoy) her life is in danger. The welcome wagon is a literal who's who of Eastern European thugs, cronies and assassins who all want to abduct her, kill her or abduct and kill her. The plot and spy mechanizations going on may be a little hard to follow but that's ok because Atomic Blonde thrives on plenty of visual and auditory style - oh and precisely orchestrated fight scenes. There's a few of those too. East Berlin is a gray city punctuated by splashes of color such as the ever present graffiti on the walls and the day glow hair styles of the German punk movement. As controlled as the lives of the citizens may be there is a thriving underground where the currency could be a bottle of Jack Daniels or information that would steer the direction of the Cold War. Finding herself in this snake's den and having to put some amount of trust in Percival who is a prince of sorts among these snakes, Lorraine has a tough job ahead of her.

I often break movies down into the good, the bad and the ugly. Fortunately there is no ugly but plenty of good and a small serving of bad. Charlize Theron who has a lot of personal stake in seeing this movie made is fantastic as Lorraine. She is cool and stylish knocking back her Stoli on ice and wearing some great 80's fashion from names like Dior, Galliano and Burberry...but as you know from the trailer she is nursing a seriously deadly rage beneath the surface. James McAvoy is just as good. You never know whether to trust his slacker like persona because you suspect he's a character you could be in the sheets with one day and fighting it out in the streets the next. A third leading character is the music. I'm reminded of 1998's Run Lola Run but if you need a more recent reference think of Baby Driver. So many scenes are highlighted by some great 80's synth pop such as Bowie, New Order, Queen, 'Til Tuesday and 99 Luftballons (a literal Cold War anthem). The bad I mentioned is very slight. With all of the names thrown around and the shifting loyalties, it's easy to loose track of the plot but if you can manage the the short IMBD synopsis, you'll be fine.

I enjoyed this enough that I am crossing my fingers for a sequel. Charlize Theron and director David Leitch (known for John Wick) have spoken so affectionately of Atomic Blonde that I think there is a good chance of that. One last note. If graphic novels are your thing, Atomic Blonde is based on a beautifully done graphic novel called The Coldest City.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Band Aid - Stop Your Messing Around and Sing a Little Song

Sometimes the name of my game is procrastination which means I add movies to my iTunes wish list and then never get around to watching them. This week, I noticed that Band Aid was the 99 cent rental of the week and it was also on my wish list. Needing no further incentive I jumped right in to see what I thought of his indie with a interesting premise.

Band Aid drops us into the a timeless domestic fight about who should be doing the dishes. Anne (Zoe Lister-Jones who also directed) and Ben (Adam Pally) argue about everything it seems. If this opening argument is any indication, they are fast moving, witty and self aware arguments. I would not have been surprised if the two had stopped mid way and broke into laughter, promising to get together again soon for an exercise in comedic improv. However that's not the case. Their's is a marriage in crisis. Therapy, smoking too much pot and other distractions are not working. The movie's main plot is set up when Anne decides that since they both love music, they should turn their worst arguments into songs and see if that might be an actual way to talk about what they're obviously not talking about. You see, there are most definitely heavier things going on than who does the dishes.

What follows is a sometimes off balance mix of comedy and drama. On the comedy side, we meet the slightly odd neighbor, Dave (Fred Armisen) who helps them out as the drummer in this little therapy session turned into a band. I truly love Fred Arisen's dry style and it worked here really well. Although I have to remind myself every time that I am not watching a sketch from Portlandia. Anne works as an uber driver while nursing a side career as a writer; so there is some successful observational humor with her passengers. For example we have in the credits "uber obnoxious"", "uber annoying" and "uber quiet". My favorite is Uber Obnoxious played by Colin Hanks. The music provides a bulk of the humor. Adam Pally and Zoe Lister-Jones play off of each other really well and make these scenes look as if they must have been quite a bit of fun to film. The songs themselves, while not a soundtrack I would buy, are relatable to anyone who has ever been in a relationship.

We do find out about the personal tragedy that took Anne and Ben's marriage off the rails. Essentially she is grieving and he is deflecting or as he says "managing his emotions in an appropriate way" (don't ever say those words to your significant other who is in tears, by the way). The layers are peeled away and the lighter tone is traded for short spurts of raw, emotional scenes followed by more music numbers. However this time it less about fighting and more about communicating.

Final thoughts? I wan't too familiar with either Adam Pally or Zoe Lister-Jones but will keep the names in my mind because they are fantastic and would be happy to watch either in future projects. If you're like me and ok with fast moving, dry humor served up with a little angst, then give Band Aid a try.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Patti Cake$ - A Little Indie That Could

Meet Patti Cake$ aka Killa P but ultimately aka Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald). She's an unlikely rap star in the making, living her young life in a forlorn New Jersey town that if you want to stereotype seems to be the place where the bodies are buried. Patti is first introduced during an elaborate dream sequence where her rap idol O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah) is descending from the heavens to bestow his blessing on her. Reality interrupts and you see Patti's real life which ticks off some pretty bad boxes on the dismal life checklist - early morning collection calls, her mom in bed with the latest looser and finally a sick nana in the living room watching reality TV. How Patti reacts to this tells you a lot about what is to come - she looks at herself in the mirror and says "'re gorgeous, ya boss bitch".

There is an urge to compare this story to 8 Mile, Hustle & Flow or maybe even something like Billy Elliot (Not a stretch. Watch and then think about it) but I decided to see Patti Cake$ as a coming of age super-hero story. Patti may have a rough home life and spend a lot of her other time working in New Jersey's most depressing Kareoke bar but when Killa P comes out she is a transformed and her super power is a voice. A voice that when unleashed via rap empowers her to plow through obstacles whether it be the lame fat jokes hurled at her or the hardened but ultimately fragile machismo of "the boys" threatened by her presence in their world. Every hero needs a sidekick and Patti gets three. First is her best friend and fellow rapper Jheri (Siddhartha Dhananjay) aka the do-rag Da Vinci. He is delightful and charming to watch as a pharmacist by day and a lyrical lover of the ladies at night. Second Patti and Jheri meet Bastard (Mamoudou Athie) a death metal/rap combo musician who brings a energetic rock vibe to Patti's rhymes. Third even her nana gets involved to lend some fish out of water humor.

The hits that knock Patti down on her quest for recognition come hard and fast in the mid part of the movie. Some are shockingly real to the point of violence and other more psychological such as being labeled a white "culture vulture". Ultimately though Patti and her gang get a chance to prove themselves in a very public venue. Endings are difficult. Make them vague and people are unhappy, make them too neat and, guess what, people are unhappy. I think the ending here leans a bit too far toward the latter but it's a pardonable sin when everything else is done so well. Director Geremy Jasper, who I am unfamiliar with, has a lot of credits for music videos; so he does a great job making all the musical and fantasy sequences engaging and energetic. My highest praise for the acting goes to Macdonald and Dhananjay because they shine especially the scenes where they playfully bouncing their rhymes off each other. So give this indie a chance and you will find some laughter and joy.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Thor : Ragnarok Review - The Gods Must Be Laughing

Based on all the online buzz and the reactions in the theater I was in Friday night, audiences are more than ready for an all out super hero comedy that does not star Chris Pratt or Ryan Reynolds. Thor : Ragnorak picks up with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returning home to Asgard to deal with his ever present dysfunctional family issues. In a fast moving set up, he exposes Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as a fraud and with the help of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) finds out the fate of his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Then Boom! him and Loki meet Hela (Cate Blanchett), a long forgotten sister, who is brimming over with daddy issues and has the power to prove it.

After a knock down, drag out family reunion Thor ends up far, far away as a prisoner on a planet completely under the control of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). He finds not only Loki weaseling his way into the Grandmaster's good graces but also his Avenger's teammate Hulk with no Bruce Banner to be found. He's Hulk 24/7. For the amusement of the Grandmaster and his flock of admirers (ok that would be his word - they are probably more like prisoners) Thor is forced to fight Hulk in space age gladiator like combat. This section of the movie is where director Taiki Waititi's touches really jump off the screen. The scenery is an overload of colors and exotic characters and the humor, both physical and verbal, flows freely. We do have some unresolved plot lines so Thor, Loki and Hulk eventually get back to Asgard and with the help of a rouge Valkyrie take on Hela. Thor does get his mojo back and the resulting battle scenes are electrifying (pun intended).

Do I have problems with this movie. Yes, that is who I am. I feel like the humor goes a step too far at times and I may have been laughing on the outside but inside I was cringing. There are short scenes that if lifted out of the film could fit right in as one of those spoofs they play before the MTV Movie Awards. Second, let's talk about Cate Blanchett. She is fantastic as the smack talking but clearly damaged Hela. I think she is underused though. I can see why since the bulk of the movie's fun is happening when Thor is away from Asgard. During that time we get some ok scenes of Hela slinking around, throwing out decent one liners and menacing the Renaissance Fair clad residents of Asgard.... but I felt at any minute she might break the fourth wall and say "Hey, remember me. I'm still here"

To sum it all up, Thor is left a much different character than he has been before with a very uncertain future. I don't think there is going to be a fourth Thor movie; so I guess we will see how things go for him in the next Marvel shared universe flick - Avengers: Infinity War.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Weekend Movie Roundup- Spider-Man: Homecoming

Every weekend me and some friends gather to consume adult beverages and watch movies. We tend to end up watching the good, bad and ugly of what's currently available. This weekend it was Spider-Man: Homecoming. Being the comic book movie geek, I had already seen this on the big screen but was totally up for a second viewing.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a thoroughly enjoyable movie free from the burdens of a hero origin story. Since this version of Spider-Man was introduced in Captain America: Civil War, we can skip the radioactive spider bite and the 'Oh wow I have super powers" phase . All of that can make for a crowded and rushed movie. I might say that I missed the Uncle Ben storyline that leads to the iconic "With great power comes great responsibility" theme.

The story picks up after the events of Captain America with Peter Parker back to his regular high school life and finding it an utter bore in contrast to duking it out with and against members of the Avengers. He impatiently waits for a call from Tony Stark that obviously is not coming any time soon. Through a series of nightly adventures that are not really that adventurous, he stumbles upon a group robbing an ATM and they are using what is obviously not technology of this Earth. For the uninitiated or those who just don't pay attention, this is a reference back to alien tech left behind in the first Avenger's movie. The villain of the piece is a working class anti-hero wannabe played excellently by Michael Keaton. You might be tempted to feel sorry for him in a populist sort of way until you realize he's really menacing and dangerous.

The rest of the story plays out with a good balance of action, humor and character building. Tom Holland is youthful and exuberant as he web slings through New York and faces serious threats he's not prepared for. Jacob Batalon deserves a new Oscar category for best sidekick as Peter's best friend who helps him keep his secret... So enjoy the past attempts at brining Spider-Man to the big screen for what they are but I think we"re now getting the story the character deserves.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Foreigner

"A particular set of skills" - A whole new genre of movie seems to have been created when Liam Neason uttered those words on screen in 2008. Does that seemingly harmless person you pass on the street secretly possess the ability to turn into a precise killing machine when confronting the bad guys that also walk among us? Now it is Jackie Chan's turn to join this list of movies that range from the really well done to the "how did this get made?".
Quan Ngoc Minh (Chan) works hard, owns a restaurant in London, and does his best to provide for his daughter Fan. An everyday errand to pick up a dress sees her killed alongside a dozen others when a terrorist bomb explodes nearby, and a devastated Quan turns quietly towards a path of vengeance. A previously unknown faction of the IRA claims responsibility which draws the attention of Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan) who was an IRA member in his youth before serving time, reforming, and bringing the fight into the political arena instead. Hennessy knows more than he’s letting on but also doesn’t know it all, and while he’s handling pressure from the British government he faces an even bigger challenge from a tired old man grieving the loss of his daughter.
Based on Stephen Leather‘s novel, The Chinaman, The Foreigner packs a hefty amount intrigue, action, and double-crosses into it's nearly two-hour running time. It’s far from a usual Chan film both because he’s only in roughly half of it and because IRA-related plot turns are given equal attention, but the combination works well to deliver intimate thrills and satisfying beats.
Writer David Marconi (Enemy of the State) keeps a smart balance between the two halves ensuring neither thread grows stale, and while both are engaging separately things heat up when they collide. It’s maybe far too easy to identify which member of Hennessy’s crew is involved, but that’s far from the point as more layers are stripped away to reveal blame and motivation galore. Brosnan captures his anger as well as his growing frustration at the loss of control to both his own people and Quan’s determination.
Chan may still be thought of mostly as a “funny” guy, but he’s played these serious roles before, and he’s played them well. Chan’s strength will always be as a physical entertainer, but he more than acquits himself here as a man who’s lost everything. There’s a tangible pain in his all but defeated face as he lets go of the past and sets his sights solely on revenge.
The supporting cast is solid with memorable turns from the likes of Rory Fleck Byrne, Charlie Murphy (no, not that one), and others. The Foreigner doesn’t break the mold, but it never tries to — and doesn’t need to.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Book of Henry

Jaeden Lieberher has built an impressive resume for his 14 years. When I think of him, the movies St. Vincent, Confirmation and Midnight Special come to mind and of course he is currently starring as the sad, earnest Bill in Stephen King's IT. In St. Vincent he really excelled at playing as a wiser than his years child who has to act as a guide for the flawed adult characters. The same idea plays out here to the nth degree. The title character of Henry is a child genius with a powerful intellect that allows him to see all of the possible scenarios that life may bring. To cope with the benefits and downside of such insights, Henry plots out plans for every outcome in the other half of the title - his book.

Henry's domestic situation, being raised with his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) by single mom Susan (Naomi Watts) is portrayed as quite idyllic and almost whimsical. You may notice though that Susan is just one of the kids too. She has handed over most of the "adulting" to Henry and honestly who wouldn't. She plays video games while Henry plans out the family's financial future and hangs with a work buddy (Sara Silverman) while Henry entertains his little brother in ways that only a true child genius could come up with. Now movies need conflict and here we are served up some dark fare. In his precise observation of the world Henry has discovered that his next door neighbor (also a single parent) is abusing his daughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler). He has tried to alert adults who are either clueless or intimidated by Christina's father who is (wait for it) the chief of police. In his book, Henry has detailed all the actions he could take and how they may or may not work and has come to a grim conclusion. 

At this point, I reach a difficult part of this review. I don't want to spoil anything so forgive the vagueness. The Book of Henry takes two unexpected turns. The first will cause confusion and make you distrust people who make movies trailers. The second can only be described as tectonic in that it shakes up everything.  How you react to these twists will probably determine your final thoughts on the movie. Will Susan continue to put so much trust in Henry's mind or will she step back and become the parent? The end is a bit too much of a pretty package for me but overall I was glad I stuck with it to see what would happen.