GIRL POWER: Atomic Blonde

When we first meet Lorraine Broughton, she’s submerged in a bathtub full of ice water. As she emerges, she extracts a couple of ice cubes and deposits them in a glass, which she then fills with vodka.

It’s a badass introduction for a woman with ice in her veins. Lorraine is played by Charlize Theron, and she is effortlessly cool. Her coolness is immediately apparent. The movie she stars in is Atomic Blonde, and it doesn’t need to have people talking about how cool Lorraine is, her coolness speaks for itself. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the rest of the film.

Image: Focus Features

I have a theory about coolness. I call it, creatively, Colin’s Coolness Theory. I am open to suggestions for better names. The main principle of CCT is that coolness speaks for itself. Everyone knows that some loudmouth going on about how cool he is is not actually cool. If you have to tell people how cool you are, then you are in fact uncool.

Atomic Blonde doesn’t tell the viewer how cool its protagonist is, because it doesn’t have to. But the rest of the movie tries too hard to live up to Lorraine’s coolness, and it can’t quite do it. The movie was directed by David Leitch, a veteran stuntman who co-directed the first John Wick film with Chad Stahelski. Stahelski went on to direct John Wick Chapter 2, while Leitch decided to make Atomic Blonde his first solo directorial feature. Unfortunately, while John Wick 2 is one of my favorite movies so far this year, Atomic Blonde is a much more mixed bag.

The main problem I have with Leitch’s film is that it is overly stylized. It’s full of neon lights and pounding 80’s music, heavy on the bass, percussion and synthesizer. I don’t have much of an ear for this kind of music, and it all started to sound the same to me. I get that the music is meant to set the mood, but unlike other music-heavy films like Baby Driver or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Leitch’s use of the music in Atomic Blonde doesn’t resonate, it gets repetitive.

Let’s talk about the story. Atomic Blonde is a Cold War spy thriller that takes place in Berlin in the late 80’s, just a few days before the Berlin Wall came down. This setting has made for great spy fiction in the past, but Atomic Blonde’s storytelling is lacking. Lorraine is sent to Berlin to investigate the death of a British agent, who was also in possession of a list revealing the identities of every undercover operative in Berlin. This information could be devastating if the Russians get hold of it, and Lorraine is ordered to find the list, at all costs. There is also a Soviet defector code-named Spyglass, who claims to have memorized the entire list. Lorraine is also ordered to extract him. On top of all this, Lorraine also has to track down the man they suspect of killing the British agent, and find and eliminate a double agent code-named Satchel who has been feeding the Soviets intelligence for years. Lorraine’s got her work cut out for her.

She is put in contact with David Percival, the head of station in Berlin. Percival has been in Berlin for a long time, and has gone native, meaning that his superiors no longer trust him. He seems to enjoy being in Berlin a bit too much. His shiftiness is apparent from the moment we first meet him. Percival is played by James McAvoy, who is a great actor. His character here is poorly written however, and it is obvious that he is Up To No Good. The viewer doesn’t trust him, and neither does Lorraine.

As well she shouldn’t, because Percival is an asshole. I like James McAvoy a lot, but his character here is so unpleasant I hated him immediately. He is an abrasive, sleazy, duplicitous bastard who smokes and swears constantly. You might argue that the viewer is not supposed to like Percival, and you’d be right. But the movie goes too far in depicting him as a corrupt, amoral douchebag. It’s completely obvious that he’s bent, and some of the suspense is taken away by his almost-comically nefarious behavior. The plot gets so convoluted, and piles on betrayal after betrayal, that by the end it’s hard to care about any of it.

The movie’s cast also includes John Goodman, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, and Sofia Boutella, who was the best thing about this year’s Mummy movie. Here, she plays a young French intelligence operative named Delphine, and when she meets Lorraine…well, let’s just say that sparks fly. It’s a great cast, but it’s Charlize Theron’s movie, and she owns every frame of it.

Image: Focus Features

For all the movie’s many flaws, Lorraine is one of my favorite new movie characters of the year, and Theron is magnetic. She is a stone-cold badass, and Theron proves herself to be completely convincing as an unstoppable action hero. I’m not forgetting about Mad Max: Fury Road, because she was great in that movie too, but in Atomic Blonde her role is much more physical. The action scenes in Mad Max are largely vehicle-based, whereas in Atomic Blonde it’s all up close and personal.

David Leitch’s storytelling skills could use some work, but his skill as a director of action sequences is considerable. Atomic Blonde has one of the best action sequences of the year, a brutal, close-quarters brawl that probably lasts around ten minutes and is filmed to appear as one continuous camera shot. It begins in a stairwell and goes into and out of several rooms, before going back outside and ending in a car chase. It’s fantastic, and Theron kicks ass. The movie doesn’t hesitate to show Lorraine getting her ass kicked as well. She gives better than she gets (since by the end she’s alive and her opponents are not) but she takes a lot of punishment in the process.

By the end of the epic battle, she’s coughing and gasping and limping, her face is bruised and cut, her eyes are bloodshot and streaks of red highlight her hair. This movie gets rough, and it captures how exhausting it would be to fight like that for an extended period of time. When it’s over, Lorraine can barely walk. The movie also features the most persistent henchman of the year. This freaking guy gets stabbed in the face with a car key and just will not quit. He keeps showing up when you think that, surely, there’s no way he could get up from that.

Image: Focus Features

Atomic Blonde is a deeply flawed film, but it’s one I will watch again in the future. Maybe the plot will make more sense to me on a second go-around, since it was pretty baffling the first time through. Despite the movie’s issues with plot and characters, the action sequences are top-notch and Charlize Theron’s lead performance is terrific. There’s a good movie lurking in here somewhere, and if David Leitch can tone down the stylization and get a better handle on the storytelling, he could be a great director. Atomic Blonde doesn’t live up to all of its promise, but it doesn’t completely squander it either, and I do hope that Theron gets to make more action movies, because she’s great at it.

Coming up next, it’s the long-awaited film adaptation of The Dark Tower, Stephen King’s epic sci-fi/fantasy series. It stars two of my favorite actors, Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba, so hopefully it’ll be good. Tune in next week to find out.

Dunkirk is An Intense War Experience

Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, is rated PG-13 for “intense war experience and some language.” “Intense war experience?” I puzzled over the meaning of this. Usually the rating would say “intense war violence” or something like that, but “intense war experience” is a phrase I don’t remember seeing in a movie rating before.

But it turns out that it’s a perfect description of the movie. Dunkirk is an extremely intense war experience, and is one of the most harrowing and riveting films I’ve ever seen.

Image: Warner Bros.

The film tells the story of the Dunkirk evacuation, which took place in Dunkirk, France in 1940, early in World War II. 400,000 Allied troops were cut off by the Germans, and were becoming surrounded. The movie wastes little time in establishing this, and we learn early in the movie from a British Naval Commander played by Kenneth Branagh that the large British ships were too big to come in to the beach where the troops were because the water was too shallow, and they didn’t have enough smaller boats to ferry troops to the bigger ships. The soldiers were stuck on the beach, while being strafed and bombed by German fighter planes as the German army drew ever closer. A dire situation, to say the least, until a flotilla of hundreds of civilian boats came to the rescue. They ended up successfully evacuating more than 300,000 of the 400,000 troops.

Nolan’s film of this event is an unconventional war movie. There are no discussions between the troops about their lives away from the war, no scenes of generals in war rooms discussing strategy, most of the characters aren’t named, and there are long stretches with little to no dialogue. And yet, Nolan has made an honest-to-God masterpiece and released it right smack in the middle of summer movie season. You’ve got to admire his chutzpah.

Nolan has a reputation for doing things for real in his movies (like the famous semi-truck flip in The Dark Knight), and this is on full display with Dunkirk. He used real boats, real planes, and thousands of extras. He filmed the movie in Dunkirk, where the actual events took place, and even used some of the actual boats that were used during the evacuation. The sense of realism pervades the film. There is nothing to distract the viewer from the desperate situation these men were in, and everything in the film feels completely genuine.

The film is composed of three interlocking segments, all of which take place over different periods of time. Nolan loves to play with the concept of time in his movies (Memento, Inception, Interstellar etc.) and he does so again here. The first segment is The Mole, which takes place over the course of one week. The word “mole” refers to the long pier stretching into Dunkirk harbor, not to a small creature that burrows around in your yard. The second segment is The Sea, which occurs over the course of one day, and the third is The Air, which transpires over one hour. These three segments intersect at various points during the movie, and Nolan doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand, meaning that it is necessary to pay close attention, since the intersections between the three segments aren’t always spelled out clearly.

I don’t want that to sound like a complaint. I felt like I had a good grasp of what was going on, but there are details that can be missed if you’re not paying enough attention. Nolan respects his audience enough to let them figure things out on their own, and doesn’t bother to spell everything out for them. The three segments take place on land, sea, and air, and together they give the viewer a complete picture of the event from all angles.

Nolan said that he studied silent films to learn how they used details to convey suspense and emotion without relying on dialogue, and there is little dialogue for much of the film. And yet, it’s the most harrowingly intense film I’ve seen all year. It has a brisk running time of 106 minutes, which makes it a solid hour shorter than Nolan’s previous films Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises. It’s the perfect length. Everything in the movie feels important and has a reason for being there. There’s no fat, the movie never drags, it’s straight-up suspense for the entire running time.

In many ways Dunkirk is more of a survival story than a war film, closer to The Grey than Saving Private Ryan. Nolan keeps the Germans off-screen, we never see the enemy directly for the entire movie. It’s also akin to a disaster movie, in which people are menaced by unstoppable forces of nature they are helpless to stop. The Germans may not be seen directly, but their presence is constantly felt. No sound I’ve heard in a movie theater this year has terrified me more than the sound of incoming German fighter planes. I wasn’t breathing for most of the movie, and one scene late in the film was so unbelievably intense that I was close to hyperventilating. If you have a phobia of drowning or are claustrophobic (or both), you seriously might not want to see this movie to avoid having a panic attack. That’s how intense it is.

In addition to Sir Kenneth Branagh, the movie’s cast includes Nolan mainstays Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, as well as Oscar-winner Mark Rylance. It also features a large cast of mostly unknown actors, several of which are making their big screen debuts. One of these is Harry Styles, member of the boy-band One Direction. This isn’t stunt-casting, though. Nolan was unaware that Styles that was already famous when he cast in the film. Nolan cast Styles because he felt Styles was right for the role he cast him in. And while I’m not a One Direction fan, Styles is good in the film, as are all the other actors. There’s nothing flashy about any of the people in this movie, they’re all normal people thrust into an impossible, desperate situation. It’s a very human story, and the film never loses track of the humanity of those involved. They’re scared and vulnerable, and we care about them despite knowing little about them.

Image: Warner Bros.

The movie looks amazing. The real planes and ships Nolan used make the film feel incredibly authentic, so much so that it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie most of the time. The aerial photography during the dogfight scenes is stunning to watch. Much of the movie was filmed using IMAX cameras, and the results are breathtaking. Christopher Nolan is one of the best directors working today, and his talents are on full display with Dunkirk. If this movie doesn’t finally earn Nolan his long-deserved first Oscar for Best Director, as well as a whole host of other awards, I’ll eat my hat. The score from frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer is also excellent, and helps ratchet up the already considerable tension to nearly unbearable levels.

Dunkirk is not a mindless summer movie. Christopher Nolan doesn’t make those. It’s a challenging film that requires a certain degree of patience, and it’s not a movie that I would call “fun,” but it is a damn good movie nonetheless, easily one of the best of the year, and it is a movie that holds many rewards for the attentive viewer. It is indeed an intense war experience, and will stay with you long after you see it. It’s a visceral, terrifying film, and I can’t wait to see it again.

Next on the Summer Movie Watchlist is Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron as a professional badass, and directed by John Wick co-director and veteran stuntman David Leitch. Will she be Jane Wick, or perhaps Jane Bond? Tune in next week to find out!

The Fate of the Furious is a Fun Movie with Problematic Writing

The Fast and Furious series has overcome humble beginnings to somehow become one of the biggest blockbuster movie franchises in recent memory. The eighth and most recent installment, The Fate of the Furious, was released in April and grossed a staggering $1.2 billion, which puts it at the number 2 spot on the list of the highest-grossing films of 2017 so far (only Beauty and the Beast has made more).

I saw the movie when it came out but I was in a bit of a funk at the time and never got around to writing about it. But since the movie just came out on Blu-Ray I thought it would be a good time to share some thoughts about it. Besides, given the fact that it made such an immense amount of money, most people who wanted to see it probably already have, so I figure the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired. This is my way of saying that the rest of this post will be chock-full of spoilers. You have been warned.

I like The Fate of the Furious. It’s a fun movie that delivers exactly what the fans of the series expect: nonstop over-the-top vehicular action and an emphasis on family and teamwork among the protagonists. So I can’t fault it too much for delivering on its promises. However…I do have some issues with the storytelling.

I might sound like a prude for saying that. After all, no one, myself included, goes into a Fast and Furious movie expecting Shakespeare. But while it is entirely possible to forget the storytelling issues and enjoy the movie for the solid piece of entertainment that it is, there are some glaring flaws with the writing that are hard to ignore.

Image: Universal

The movie’s trailers intentionally caused a bit of a stir by making it look like Dominic “Dom” Toretto, the unkillable protagonist played by Vin Diesel, had turned on his team and become the villain. He does work against his team for a good part of the movie, but he never goes full-evil. That’s okay, because he’s the main character of the series and the filmmakers would never kill him off or make him permanently evil, so clearly the film’s true villain, the dreadlocked super hacker Cipher (played by Charlize Theron) was manipulating him somehow.

Let’s backtrack a bit. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Dom’s girlfriend and now wife Letty (played by Michelle Rodriguez) was presumed dead for a while, and during that time Dom shacked up with a Brazilian cop named Elena. It turns out that this relationship resulted in a child whom Dom was never aware of, and Cipher now has Elena and Dom’s baby son held hostage. This is the leverage she uses against him to make him do her bidding, which includes stealing an EMP device and a Russian nuclear football.

It’s a pretty decent twist, and since the series emphasizes family so much, it makes a degree of sense that Dom would risk so much and work against his team in order to save his son. I’m okay with that part, but it starts to get messy.

The movie re-introduces Deckard Shaw (played by Jason Statham), the villain of the previous film, 2015’s Furious 7. Deckard was one of my favorite villains of 2015, an unstoppable ass-kicking force of nature. The grudge match between Deckard and Dom felt like it had real dramatic stakes, but The Fate of the Furious retroactively undermines it.

Deckard reluctantly joins the team to help them catch Dom and Cipher, and this leads to some fun macho rivalry between Deckard and Dwayne Johnson’s character, the equally-unstoppable badass Luke Hobbs. But then the movie starts to try to make Deckard look like not such a bad guy, by revealing that he had won medals for valor while serving as a member of British special forces. He even starts to bond a little with Hobbs, and Hobbs appears genuinely upset when they hear Deckard has been killed by Dom.

But before this happens, Deckard explains that Cipher was the mastermind behind the team’s most recent adventures, hiring Deckard’s brother Owen (the villain of Fast and Furious 6) and other villainous characters in Furious 7. Remember in Spectre, when it was revealed that Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld was the mastermind behind the villains of the previous Daniel Craig Bond movies? I thought that approach worked well enough in that film, but in The Fate of the Furious it feels…rushed.

It turns out that Deckard is not actually dead, and that he and Dom (somehow) faked his death. And then, during the movie’s climax, Deckard and Owen (who got kicked out of a plane during the climax of Fast and Furious 6 and was last seen catatonic at the beginning of Furious 7, kicking off Deckard’s plans for revenge against Dom) infiltrate Cipher’s mobile command center to rescue Dom’s son.

If all of this sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. The movie ends as these movies usually do, with Dom and his team (which now includes Deckard) sitting down to dinner.

I have so many problems with this.
Image: Universal

First of all, this series has a tendency to take antagonists from previous movies and turn them into allies. Let us not forget that Dwayne Johnson’s character Hobbs started out hunting Dom and his team back in Fast Five. I’m fine with Hobbs joining the team, because who doesn’t want more Dwayne Johnson in their movies? Hell, I want Dwayne in every movie.

But it’s so much harder to accept Deckard (and potentially Owen) joining the team as well. Hobbs was never portrayed as a bad guy in Fast Five. Dom’s a criminal, Hobbs is a cop, his job was to catch Dom and by God that was what he was going to do. Hobbs was a guy doing his job, and even though his job was to catch Dom and his friends, Hobbs was never evil, and he became sympathetic towards Dom once he realized that there were far worse criminals around.

That makes sense as a character arc, but with Deckard is just doesn’t work. Furious 7 spent the entire movie establishing Dom and Deckard as the most bitter of enemies. Dom kicked Deckard’s brother Owen out of a plane, in return, Deckard killed one of Dom’s team members. But The Fate of the Furious undermines this by showing that Owen is apparently fine now, aside from some facial scarring he seems A-Okay despite having been kicked out of a plane that was going at several hundred miles an hour. Deckard’s grudge against Dom is therefore nullified, but Deckard still killed one of Dom’s team members. Dom seems willing to forget about this, and since the movie makes no mention of Dom’s friend that was killed by Deckard, I’m guessing the filmmakers wished the audience would forget about it too.

This also undermines the conflicts in Fast and Furious 6 and Furious 7. It makes it seem like Owen and Deckard were not that bad after all, despite both movies working hard to set them up as Really Bad Dudes. I mean heck, even if Owen was hired by Cipher to steal whatever the hell it was he was trying to steal in the sixth movie, he still drove a tank on a highway and annihilated several carloads of innocent people. Even if Owen and Deckard had been manipulated by Cipher to some extent, that doesn’t exonerate them of their past misdeeds.

You might argue that in a movie full of over-the-top action and people surviving things no actual human ever could survive, the storytelling issues aren’t that big of a deal, but for me, it’s the other way around. The Fast and Furious movies have always been about crazy action and stunts. Sure, some of it may be impossible, but after eight movies of death-defying mayhem, I can accept it. The plot contrivances, however, are much harder to swallow.

It also doesn’t help that it’s inelegantly done. Much of the final half-hour or so of The Fate of The Furious is composed of non-stop action, and for the most part it’s great fun. As much as I don’t like the whole “let’s make Dom and Deckard be friends now” angle, it is always a lot of fun to watch Statham kick ass, which he’s very good at. The scene where he battles Cipher’s henchmen with a gun in one hand and Dom’s son in a baby carrier in the other hand is one of the highlights of the movie (and also owes a clear debt to John Woo’s masterpiece Hardboiled).

But before this happens, the movie cuts back to show the audience how it transpired that Deckard was not killed earlier and how his mother (played by an uncredited and of course fabulous Helen Mirren) hatched a plan with Dom. I hate it when movies go away from exciting action scenes to show us people talking. It kills the momentum of the movie. I understand why the film is structured this way (so that the appearance of Deckard and Owen comes as a surprise) but for crying out loud, there’s got to be a better way of doing it than cutting away from the frenetic action scenes that are this series’ bread and butter. It interrupts the pacing and always feels like the filmmakers patting themselves on the back for being so clever, but to me this sort of thing always feels contrived.

My other main issue with the movie is Tyrese Gibson. I HATE Tyrese Gibson. The guy is an absolutely terrible actor and his character Roman is an irritating, obnoxious, loudmouthed asshole who does his best to ruin every scene he’s in. What’s worse, every director of every Fast and Furious movie seems to think that he’s hilarious and gives him way too much screen time for his incessantly smug mugging (smugging?). I REALLY wanted him to die during the movie’s climax, although I was sure it wouldn’t happen and sure enough, it didn’t. GAH. I HATE HIM.

Anyway, Tyrese Gibson rant over. Despite its profoundly flawed and somewhat lazy storytelling, The Fate of the Furious is still a fun movie. Even though I spent most of this post dissecting its many problems, I don’t want people to think that I hate it. I don’t. It’s a fun movie that delivers what fans want, and I can watch it and enjoy it as long as I don’t think too much about it. Maybe I’m my own worst enemy here and I need to stop thinking so much (DAMN YOU CLASSICAL EDUCATION) but I can still enjoy the movie as a fun piece of popcorn entertainment, even if it ultimately fails in its aspirations to be much more than that.

Thanks for checking out this spoiler-filled discussion of The Fate of the Furious. I hope it didn’t seem like a rant, except for the part about Tyrese Gibson. That part was definitely a rant. Next up is Christopher Nolan’s epic-looking war movie Dunkirk, which I’m very excited about. Tune in next Wednesday for a review.

Baby Driver: Nowhere To Run To, Baby

Thank God for Edgar Wright. In an era where so many movies (looking at you, Transformers) feel like the filmmakers are making them up as they go along, Edgar Wright is a guy who makes movies that are coherent, thrilling, and emotionally resonant. He makes movies where you can see that he had the whole movie planned out in his head before the cameras even started rolling, and the results are spectacular.
Baby Driver is only his fifth theatrical feature, and he is five-for-five. I adore all three films he made with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Shaun of the Dead is my favorite zombie movie of all time, and I absolutely love Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. Those three movies are endlessly rewatchable, as is Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, his hyperkinetic take on the beloved comic book series. It’s been a long four years since The World’s End, which was his last feature (he was going to direct Marvel’s Ant-Man but ended up leaving the project), but since Wright is only 43 years old, hopefully we’ll see a lot more films from him in the future.

Image: Sony

Baby Driver is the story of Baby, who is a driver. Baby is played by appropriately baby-faced The Fault in Our Stars heartthrob Ansel Elgort, who is fantastic in the lead role. Baby is a man of few words, who expresses himself through body language and music. He suffers from chronic tinnitus as the result of a car accident when he was a kid that also killed his parents, and drowns out the humming with a constant stream of music from one of several different iPods. He has different Pods for different moods, and you get the feeling that he knows every song on every one of them by heart.

He’s also the best getaway driver in the business. He works for a gangster called Doc (played perfectly by Kevin Spacey), who makes not-so-veiled threats like “Your waitress girlfriend, she’s cute. Let’s keep it that way.” Once, Baby made the mistake of stealing from Doc, and now gives Doc most of his take from the various jobs they do as a means of paying off his debt. Also along for the ride are various miscreants, the most notable of which are Buddy (Jon Hamm), his girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the violent sociopath known as Bats (Jamie Foxx).

Every actor seems tailor-made for the part they play, and Jamie Foxx is just terrifying. He clearly enjoys being a criminal way too much, and his violent outbursts during their heists are part of what makes Baby long to escape from these dangerous people he finds himself involved with. Baby’s problem is that he has a conscience. “The moment you catch feelings,” Bats explains to him from behind the barrel of a shotgun, “is the moment you catch a bullet.” Bats hasn’t caught a bullet yet because he has no feelings for any of the people he hurts, which sets him on a collision course with Baby.

Further complicating matters is the aforementioned waitress girlfriend Baby meets one day in his favorite sparsely-occupied diner. Her name is Debbie, and she is played by Lily James, who is perfect as the girl the hero must risk everything to be with. Debbie is as sweet as Bats is frightening, and when Bats brings Baby, Buddy and Darling to the diner partway through the movie the tension is nearly unbearable. It’s a beautifully-acted and -directed scene, with Debbie and Baby pretending not to know each other and trying not to make eye contact, lest Bats figure out that Baby cares about her.

Edgar Wright directs the hell out of this movie. The many car chases are beautifully chaotic, and they manage to be frenetic and intense without sacrificing clarity. While Baby Driver is not a comedy in the way Wright’s earlier films were, there are still some very funny moments, and Wright deftly balances the tone of the movie so that it never feels out-of-control.

And of course there’s the music. I’ll admit that most of it is music I was unfamiliar with, but much like the actors, every song feels perfect for the scene it’s in. Wright is also a master of editing, and precisely times moments during the action scenes to correspond with the beats of a song. That’s what I meant when I said earlier that you can tell how he’s envisioned the whole movie is in his head before he even starts filming, since that level of precision with the music, editing, and stunt choreography doesn’t happen by accident. It all blends together to create a seamless experience.

Image: Sony

The movie is very stylized, and some might say it’s style over substance, but I disagree. Partly that’s because I love Edgar Wright’s style, but there’s also a strong emotional connection to the characters. I really cared about Baby and Debbie, and during the suspenseful, action-packed second half of the film I was on the edge of my seat. This movie is such a breath of fresh air after the pair of crummy blockbusters that were the subjects of my previous two posts.

If there’s one thing I didn’t love about the movie, it’s the ending. It’s not terrible, and I won’t spoil it, but it’s the weakest part of a really good movie so it stands out. I don’t hate the ending, but it goes on a bit longer than it should. It’s one of those endings where there’s a perfect moment where it could have ended, but then it keeps going for two or three more scenes that didn’t need to be there. This is a minor complaint when I loved everything else about the movie, but I do feel that Wright didn’t quite stick the landing with regards to the movie’s conclusion.

I hope it doesn’t take four years for Edgar Wright to make another film, he’s one of my favorite directors. But until he makes another one, I’m very glad we’ve got this one to rewatch. Coming up next on the Summer Movie Watchlist is Spider-Man: Homecoming, the latest reboot of everyone’s favorite wall-crawling superhero, so look for that next week.

Le Cinema de WTF: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Guy Ritchie is his own worst enemy. He’s not a terrible director, he knows how to film an adrenaline-pumping action scene. But his movies are so overwhelmingly stylized that any artistic merits his films have are mostly drowned out by all the weird stuff he piles on top, and his latest film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is no exception.

Image: Warner Bros.

On the one hand, you almost have to admire the guy (so to speak). Ritchie clearly has a way of making movies that he likes, and he sticks to his guns. But the fatal flaw with this approach is its hubris: Ritchie doesn’t seem to realize that just because he thinks something is cool, doesn’t mean everyone who watches his movies will think so too. Never is this more apparent than with his take on the King Arthur myth, which is hands-down the most aggressively bizarre cinematic experience I’ve had all year. Heck, maybe ever.

Here are just a few of the weird and/or crazy things in this movie. Giant animals (bats, rats, snakes, elephants, wolves, eagles). Demonic hell knights. Tentacle…witches, I guess? People with cockney gangster names like Goose Fat Bill and Flat Nose Mike. Slow-mo swordfights. Hyperactive, spastic editing. A completely bonkers plot. Nary a shred of plot cohesion or character development. In short, it’s a mess, a $175 million wannabe blockbuster that is the first major flop of the year, earning a paltry $15 million domestically in its opening weekend.

So what’s the plot, such as it is? Well, the movie opens with a battle scene featuring the aforementioned giant elephants, which are more akin to the huge elephant creatures in The Lord of the Rings than actual elephants. Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon defeats the elephants and the army accompanying them by killing their leader, a mage named Mordred, with the mystical powers of the sword Excalibur. And if you read that and thought to yourself, “Wait a minute, Mordred wasn’t a mage, he was the product of Arthur’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister,” then you would be right. This is the first sign that Ritchie’s version of King Arthur will have little to no resemblance to previous versions of the story.

Following this, Uther’s devious brother Vortigern stages a coup, and Uther and his wife are killed by a demonic-looking knight with a skull face, flaming cape, and double-bladed scythe. This guy looks like something from the cover of a heavy metal album, or maybe a Dark Souls boss. During his father’s battle with the Dark Souls boss, young Arthur gets in a boat which floats away, Moses-like, down the river where he eventually is found and taken in by prostitutes. There follows a rapid-fire montage of Arthur growing up rough in the streets of “Londinium” (was there ever such a place?), being raised by prostitutes, learning to fight and getting punched in the face a lot. As one might imagine, being raised in a brothel and getting face-punched a lot turns Arthur into a tough, scrappy adult. He is eventually forced to flee Londinium, ends up drawing Excalibur from the stone, and joins the resistance against the evil king Vortigern.

Image: Warner Bros.

This is definitely a fantasy movie, and is not intended to be historically accurate. That much is apparent from the very first scene, and I’m fine with that. The movie doesn’t pretend to be “Based on a True Story” or anything like that, which is good because if it did claim to be based on a true story that would obviously be nonsense. I’m still annoyed that the 2003 King Arthur movie had the audacity to claim it was “The Untold True Story Behind the Legend” when it was nothing of the kind.

And I’m fine with this being a fantasy movie, because King Arthur stories have many elements of magic and mysticism. The problem with the fantasy elements in Ritchie’s film is that they make no sense. For example, Vortigern has this weird cavern under his tower. When we first see the cavern, a mass of tentacles emerges from the water, which unravel to reveal three women. Two of them are kinda hot, the third is massively fat. What the hell are these things? I guess they’re witches of some kind? The movie never explains what these things are, and they end up feeling arbitrary.

This is a movie where things just kind of…happen. There’s no real sense of conflict, and the supporting characters, despite being played by capable actors, are underdeveloped. Jude Law makes for a fun bad guy as Vortigern, and Charlie Hunnam is a charismatic Arthur. But despite having two good lead actors, the movie never really sells the rivalry between them. It also doesn’t help that Vortigern has to be at least 20 years older than Arthur, but Law doesn’t look much older than Hunnam at all. This could be because Hunnam is 37 and Law is 44. But aside from this discrepancy, the movie never gives a reason to care about the story. I like Hunnam as an actor and I liked his portrayal of Arthur, but I wasn’t invested in the story.

Image: Warner Bros.

The movie also has editing issues. You’ve probably seen movies where people talk about doing something, then the movie cuts to the people doing the thing they’re talking about, then it cuts to them talking, then doing, and so on. This can be an effective technique when used properly. Think of a heist film, where we see the heist being planned out and executed step-by-step. This is good because it helps the viewer understand what’s going on, but Ritchie uses this editing technique when there’s really no need to, and as a result parts of the film are unnecessarily choppy.

I don’t hate this movie. It’s a mess, but it’s an enjoyable one, and it’s so full of crazy that it’s never boring. The acting is solid, the photography and special effects are good, and there are some fun action sequences. But ultimately it’s baffling. I would put this movie right up there with The Lone Ranger and Suicide Squad as one of the most bizarre blockbusters I’ve ever seen. But at least it’s more playful than other dour swords-and-sandals epics, such as Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood or Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur. Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur is a work of vision, even if it just so happens to be a completely demented vision.

Le Cinema de WTF: Assassin’s Creed

To say that movies based on video games have a mixed track record would be putting it mildly. To put it less mildly, most of them suck. In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit to having a weakness for the Resident Evil and Tomb Raider movies. They are good popcorn movies. They are mindless fun. I enjoy them. But are they, strictly speaking, good movies? No. No, they are not.

Assassin’s Creed was the movie that was going to change all that. The movie adaptation of the long-running video game franchise stars Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Freaking Irons. These have to be the three most critically-acclaimed actors to ever star in a game-based movie. The latter two are Oscar winners, and Fassbender is an Oscar nominee. The movie was directed by Justin Kurzel, a talented up-and-comer whose previous film was a well-received adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which also starred Fassbender and Cotillard. Parts of the movie take place during the Spanish Inquisition, a time period the games have not explored and that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on film before. This was a movie with ambition, damn it.

And yet, it has a dismal 17% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating that it was soundly thrashed by the critics.

So what happened?

Image: 20th Century Fox

Before I get into that, I need to explain how the games work, or none of this will make any sense. In the marketing for the games whenever a new one comes out, the trailers and TV commercials only show off the cool stuff: hooded badasses using hidden wrist blades and other pointy implements to singlehandedly take out legions of hapless suckers in cool historical backdrops. Sounds great, right? But what these ads don’t tell you is that the cool historical stuff is only part of the story.

The story revolves around the conflict between two ancient and secretive groups: the Assassins and the Templars. In most of the games, the player controls an Assassin, and the Templars are the primary antagonists. The games begin in the modern age, where a mega-corporation called Abstergo Industries (secretly run by the Templars) has developed a technology called the Animus, which allows people to relive their ancestors’ memories through a kind of super-advanced virtual reality.

The historical parts of the games are the main focus, but they’re all just flashbacks, a sort of game-within-a-game. The series’ timeline and mythology are incredibly convoluted, and even though I’ve played five or six of the games, I spend most of them not having any idea what is going on, and I couldn’t give less of a hoot about the Assassin/Templar conflict that has been raging throughout the centuries. Can you see how this might be problematic for a movie adaptation?

As much as I enjoy the historical parts of the games, the modern-day parts are an absolute snoozefest. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, for example, you spend most of the game doing awesome pirate stuff like sinking people’s ships and taking their stuff, but every once in a while the game kicks you back into the present day and makes you wander around an office building and hack into security systems with an iPad. If that sounds boring, I can assure you that it is. I love Black Flag, it’s a fantastic game, but the present-day sections are as boring as hell, and I would always complete them as fast as possible so I could get back to the fun pirate stuff.

Image: Ubisoft

Well, in this sense the movie is a good interpretation of the games, since the historical sections are great but the modern-day stuff, well, isn’t. The film opens in 1492, with a man named Aguilar being inducted into the Assassins Brotherhood. Fast forward to 1986, and a young boy named Callum Lynch. He walks into his house one day to find his mother dead, apparently killed by his father. Men with guns converge on the house, and Callum’s father tells him to run. As he flees, Callum’s father is taken into custody by the armed men, under the command of Dr. Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons). Fast forward again to Callum as an adult, now played by Michael Fassbender, who is on death row, and is soon executed by lethal injection.

Except he isn’t, or the movie would have ended a lot sooner. He wakes up at the Abstergo facility in Madrid, and is told by Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), Alan’s daughter, that Abstergo has secreted him away because they want to use him in the Animus. Abstergo is looking for the Apple of Eden, which contains the genetic code for free will, and Abstergo wants to use the Apple to subjugate humanity and end violence and corruption. Abstergo wants Callum to relive the memories of his ancestor Aguilar (also played by Fassbender), as they believe that Aguilar’s memories will lead them to the Apple.

Did you get all that? Well strap in, because we’re just getting started. This does present an intriguing ideological conflict, since it could be argued that Abstergo’s motives are pure. Ending violence and corruption in the world sounds good, but taking away humanity’s free will in the process would be less good. The Assassins want humanity to be free, even if that means being free to destroy itself. Abstergo and the Templars are like the League of Shadows in Batman Begins, as their motives are okay but their methods leave a lot to be desired.

Image: 20th Century Fox

But the movie’s plot is ridiculously hard to follow. I haven’t played every game in the series, but I’ve played quite a few of them, and I still had very little idea of what was going on for most of the movie. I can only imagine how confusing the movie would be for someone who hadn’t played any of the games. And I have to say that the movie has the most baffling ending of just about any movie I’ve seen in the last couple years. It should end with a bang, but it ends with a whimper. And the end credits are fifteen minutes long, which is ludicrous. The movie’s running time is 115 minutes, but fifteen of those minutes are taken up by the end credits.

The film’s best parts are the flashback sequences that take place during the Spanish Inquisition. These are the scenes that follow Callum’s ancestor Aguilar, as he fights to keep the Apple of Eden from falling into Templar hands. These scenes also comprise most of the action sequences, which is great because you know that whenever Aguilar and his sidekick Maria show up, shit is about to go down. And the action sequences are great. They do a fantastic job of emulating the free-running style of combat in the games, and the athleticism of the stunt performers is impressive.

They also look great. The locations look very good and the sets, special effects, and particularly the costumes are all great. I give special consideration to the costumes because the outfit Aguilar wears is so cool, and looks exactly like something that would be seen in the games. There’s a real thrill in seeing an actual person looking like he could have walked off the screen from a video game.

Image: 20th Century Fox

But as much as I like the Aguilar sequences, they have two crucial flaws. The first flaw stems from the decisions the filmmakers made in adapting the Animus for the screen. In the games, the Animus is basically a chair a person lies down on and is hooked up to a bunch of machines, like in The Matrix. The filmmakers apparently decided this would be boring for an audience to watch (or perhaps too similar to The Matrix), and turned the Animus into a giant harness that descends from the ceiling in the middle of a large room, allowing for the person plugged in to the Animus to move around as he literally re-enacts his ancestor’s actions. It’s a cool idea, but the problem is that in the middle of the Aguilar-based action scenes, the movie cuts back to Callum hooked up to the Animus mimicking Aguilar’s actions. It severely disrupts the pacing of the fast-paced action sequences.

The other problem with the action sequences is that they are almost entirely bloodless. People are slashed and stabbed with barely a drop of blood spilled. The movie is rated PG-13, which is weird when you consider that all the games are Mature-rated, which is the video game equivalent to an R-rating. I hate it when people are killed in movies with swords or knives and there’s no blood. This isn’t because I want every movie to be as bloody as possible (I don’t). It’s because it takes me out of the moment. It kills the immersion because it makes me think, “I am watching a movie that was edited in order to get a PG-13 rating.” This is something you don’t want to think while watching a movie, because it means you’re not fully in to the experience.

For me personally, Assassin’s Creed the movie may very well be one of the most accurate game-to-movie adaptations ever made, since it mirrors my experience of playing the games almost perfectly. I love the historical sections despite their flaws, but the modern-day stuff is slow and boring and I just want it to be over. Just like in the games, the film’s modern-day sections are dull, taking viewers away from the vibrancy of the historical settings and depositing them in drab-looking rooms and hallways. The plot is nearly incomprehensible, and the characters are hard to care about. Justin Kurzel is a talented director, but adapting such a dense and convoluted video-game mythology to the big screen was always going to be a tall order.

Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth is well worth checking out, however. Fassbender makes Macbeth a sympathetic character, a man who doesn’t realize he is a monster until it is far too late. And he has great chemistry with Marion Cotillard, who plays Lady Macbeth. It’s also a great-looking movie, and the ending sequence where Macbeth fights Macduff is stunning. Macbeth and Macduff do battle against the backdrop of a burning village, and the entire sequence is engulfed in an orange haze that gives it an eerie, dreamlike quality. The music in both Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed is awesome. Both films were scored by Kurzel’s brother Jed, and his moody, ominous music greatly improves each film. Both of Justin Kurzel’s films are rich in atmosphere, and Jed Kurzel’s music is a key part of that.

Is this, from a purely technical standpoint, the best video game movie ever made? Quite possibly, yes. It’s reasonably well-made and the acting is solid. But it is undone by several crippling flaws. In spite of its flaws, I have to give it some credit for at least trying to rise above its video-game-based-movie brethren. Can you think of any other movie based on a game that has actual ambition? This is the only one I know of. It’s hard to fault it for being too big for its britches because of this, even though the end result is a film that can generously be described as a mixed bag. Unsurprisingly, sequels are in the works, so maybe some of the narrative flaws will be worked out. I hope so, because there’s a lot of promise here. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Logan: A Brutal and Epic Sendoff

For the longest time, I had a list of my top five favorite movies. They were Die Hard, The Dark Knight, Hot Fuzz, Casino Royale, and Gladiator. Then in 2015 Mad Max Fury Road was released, and my top five became a top six.

Well, now it might have to become a top seven.

James Mangold’s Logan is a deeply moving film, and I left the theater with tears in my eyes. I was saddened by the end of the film. Saddened by the end of a story I love, and by the fact that one of my favorite fictional characters will not be seen again onscreen the same way. But at the same time, it was a good sort of sadness, the kind of sadness that you feel when a story you love is over, but you feel that it couldn’t have ended any other way.

Logan is an aptly named film. In many ways, this is not a superhero movie. It’s not a story about Wolverine, the superhero. It’s a story about Logan, the man.

It’s also a story about the toll that all the years of fighting and world-saving can take on a person, even one with superhuman regenerating powers. This movie takes beloved and iconic characters and brings them lower than they’ve ever been before, and the results are breathtaking.

Unlike its predecessors, this is a not a family-friendly movie. Seriously, leave the kids at home for this one. The success of Deadpool last year paved the way for R-rated superhero movies, and Logan takes full advantage of the freedom provided by the R rating. This is a far more violent film than Deadpool, much more realistic and less exaggerated. There are buckets of blood and gore. Limbs and heads are severed, bodies and craniums are slashed and impaled in gruesome detail.

But the film isn’t violent just for the sake of being violent. The violence in the film comes from a place of character, and all of it has meaning. Fans have long wanted a Wolverine movie that lets him really cut loose with his claws, and this is that movie. One review I read described the movie like this: the language is blue and the violence is red. It’s a completely accurate description.

In the movie, which takes place in 2029, mutants are a dying breed. We’re told that no mutants have been born in 25 years. Logan makes a meager living as a limo driver, and hides out in a compound on the Mexican border, where he cares for an ailing Charles Xavier.

Logan and Charles have both seen better days, to say the least. Logan’s healing factor isn’t as potent as it once was, and his body has started to betray him in other ways. He wears reading glasses because his eyesight is starting to go, and when he pops his claws early in the film, one of them only comes out halfway, prompting him to look at it in bewilderment.

Charles is in arguably worse shape. He’s now in his nineties and is starting to become senile. He takes medication to suppress his seizures, and what happens when the world’s most powerful telepath has seizures? Nothing good. The first time we see Charles, he’s rambling incoherently and refusing to take his meds. He’s belligerent and uncooperative, and tells Logan how much of a disappointment he is, and accuses Logan of wishing he would just die so that he wouldn’t have to take care of him anymore. As a person with a grandparent with Alzheimer’s, all of this cut me right to the bone.

But even if you don’t know someone with a degenerative brain disease, it’s not hard to sympathize with Charles. This is a character who in his previous appearances has been the embodiment of civility and intelligence, a bastion of order in the chaos. To see him brought down so low is upsetting. It hurts.

This is a film that deals with things no other superhero or comic book movie ever has. It’s about getting old. It’s about the inevitability of death and the unstoppable current of time. It’s part western, part road-trip movie, part passing the torch to the next generation.

That next generation arrives in the form of Laura, an 11-year-old girl with the same powers as Wolverine, right down to the claws that come out from between her knuckles, who is being pursued by sinister forces. Logan reluctantly agrees to take her north to the Canadian border, to a safe haven for mutants that may or may not even exist, with the bad guys in hot pursuit. Along the way we find out more about Laura, where she came from and what she has already gone through, and the three of them, Logan, Charles, and Laura, start to become a family.

Laura is played by a young actress named Dafne Keen, making her big-screen debut. And she knocks it out of the park. Laura is silent and unexpressive for much of the movie, and when her ferocity is unleashed it’s truly frightening. The mystery of Laura’s origin is compelling and provides a strong driving force for the movie’s plot.

And it conveys so much about the personalities of Logan and Charles. Logan doesn’t want to help Laura at first. He doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore. But in the end, he can’t help it. He simply has no other choice. Charles does want to help her, perhaps feeling the same kind of motivations that led him to open his school for mutants all those years ago. Maybe he just wants some purpose to his life, some light in the darkness that the last years of his life have become.

It’s hard to tell exactly where this film fits in to the X-Men series’ cinematic continuity. The series has gone through several reboots over the years so it’s not clear what is canon and what isn’t. But that doesn’t bother me with this movie. I prefer to think of the X-Men films like I think about comics. They’re different interpretations of the same characters, and maybe they’re not meant to take place in the same universe. The point is that the fractured continuity of the X-Men film series doesn’t effect one’s enjoyment of this film. I don’t care if it takes place in the same universe or not, it’s still a superb movie.

And let’s talk for a second about Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. The first X-Men movie came out in 2000. Jackman and Stewart have been playing Logan and Charles for nearly two decades. When we see them in such dire straits, part of the reason it’s so affecting is that we’ve never seen them this way before, and we have memories of them in better days. Seeing them brought so low would have been moving anyway, but the fact that the movie carries nearly twenty years’ worth of previous movies behind it lends it even more weight. Needless to say, both actors are magnificent in this film, in what both have said will be their final appearances as these beloved and iconic characters.

There is a lot of action in this movie, and all of it is thrilling, but not necessarily what I would call “fun.” The action is well-filmed and choreographed, and it is easy to tell what is going on. But again, this is not a fun movie in the way that, say, an Avengers movie is fun. I would equate the experience of watching it to something like watching Gladiator. Spectacular action scenes, but hard to watch because of the brutality and the sheer emotional weight. The movie is beautifully directed by James Mangold, who also co-wrote the screenplay. He also directed Logan’s previous solo movie, 2013’s The Wolverine, and has a strong understanding of what makes Logan a compelling character. He directs the film with skill and grace, and it really feels like he cares about the characters. He has created a riveting film, from its startling opening scene to its haunting final image.

The movie’s first trailer was accompanied by a Johnny Cash song, “Hurt.” The trailer was one of those rare movie trailers that turned out to perfectly encapsulate the feel of the film it was promoting. It captured the movie’s melancholy tone, while conveying the emotional strain of the pain these characters experience. The song includes the line “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.” Logan and Charles live in a world of pain of all kinds: physical, mental, emotional. But the movie is about them realizing that there’s more to life than pain. There are things like love and family, and those things are what matter, those things are what last. It’s a lesson Logan and Charles have to learn the hard way, but it resonates throughout the film and beyond.