Atomic Blonde

Released: July 2017

Director: David Leitch

Rated R

Run Time: 115 Minutes

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Genre: Action/Thriller

Charlize Theron: Lorraine Broughton
James McAvoy: David Percival
Eddie: Marsan: Spyglass
John Goodman: Emmett Kurtzfeld
Toby Jones: Eric Gray
James Faulkner: Chief ‘C’
Sofia Boutella: Delphine Lasalle
Bill Skarsgard: Merkel

Setting an action movie during a specific period in history is nothing new.  We’ve seen it done before on MANY occasions.  Indiana Jones was set during the onset of World War II and a lot of my favorite kung-fu movies were set during various dynasties throughout the Chinese Empire.  Setting a movie in a particular historical era can give the film a very unique flavor.  Each setting offers a very different set of visual and combat styles.  I love movies that take place in these historical periods because it gets me interested in history.  Sometimes, one can be a witness to an unprecedented historical event that can change the world.  1989 was a very important year for many reasons.  It wasn’t just because of a new presidential election, but because on November 9, East Germany opened its borders and the Berlin Wall came down.  This was the end of the Soviet Union as we knew it.  The Union would not fully collapse until 1991, but the fall of the Berlin Wall was a signal that the end was near for the Soviets.  I remember EXACTLY where I was when that happened.  I was sitting in our old living room with my brother and parents and we saw the first slab of the wall come down.  I was 7 years old.  So, how do you craft a movie with a backdrop like that?  You end up with Atomic Blonde, that’s how.

Set in Germany in 1989, Atomic Blonde follows a female British spy, Lorraine Broughton, as she is assigned to work with another agent, David Percival, to retrieve a former Stasi officer because he has a list of a number of agents operating in Germany.  What follows is an action-packed race to get to the officer before it’s too late.  It’s a pretty solid story that has multiple twists and turns throughout.  This isn’t your typical spy-thriller, although it does tend to use some tropes associated with the genre.  What sets this apart from all others is its setting.  Germany in 1989 was a very rough place to be, especially if you were unlucky enough to be on the eastern side of the wall.  While there is definitely chaos surrounding the story, the film still manages to focus on its main characters and story.  It’s very intriguing.  When you think it wraps up nicely, it throws another twist in there for good measure.

The performances in the film are really solid across the board.  John Goodman appears as the CIA guy, Emitt Kurtzfeld, and it’s always a joy to see Goodman working.  He’s fantastic.  Like-wise, Toby Jones is just as interesting as the British MI:6 counterpart.  Sofia Boutella(from Star Trek: Beyond and The Mummy)is fantastic.  I really like this actress.  She gives it her all and has the potential to be a hell of an actress once she gets her real breakout role.  However, the two performers that really steal the show are Charlize Theron and James McAvoy.  McAvoy, as far as I’m concerned is one of the best actors working today.  His character of David Percival is a slippery, yet, charming kind of rogue.  You really don’t know what he’s up to most of the time, but McAvoy is so fun to watch.  Atomic Blonde is Theron’s film, through and through.  She is absolutely phenomenal.  Not only is she sexy, but she brings a steely and calculating presence to the role.  I’ve never been the biggest fan of Theron’s, honestly, but over the past couple of years she’s hit it out of the park.

You might be wondering, “How’s the action?”  Holy. Shit.  This is easily one of the most aggressive movies I’ve seen in years.  A lot of folks and critics have often compared Atomic Blonde to John Wick.  It’s not an unfair comparison.  It’s also not a bad thing.  The guy that worked on the John Wick films, David Leitch, makes his directorial debut here, and what a debut it is.  Mr. Leitch comes from a background of stunt-work and action choreography and because of that, it was appropriate for him to take the lead here.  He has a very unique take on how he films action.  Because of that, most of the action in the film is not only hard-hitting, but you can see what’s going on.  He wants the audience to see the action, not obfuscate it with shaky-cam.  Some of these action sequences are insane.  There’s one early on when she’s investigating a dead agent’s apartment and takes on multiple cops at once.  It’s totally crazy.  I loved it.  There’s another sequence later on in the film which is one long take.  I haven’t seen anything like that since Tom Yum Goong(The Protector).  What really sells the action is Charlize Theron herself.  She devoted 8 weeks to train for the film, and she ends up doing all of her own fights and most of her own stunts.  That is absolute dedication and it pays off extraordinarily well.  The action has a very grounded reality to it that makes it far more gritty and brutal.  This movie is an absolute blast from beginning to end.

The visual style of the film is incredible.  It really gives you a bleak look at Germany before the wall fell and it looks like the film-makers took a walk back through time.  The sets and the costumes are all top-notch.  One of the things that really makes this film shine is the music.  For fans of 80’s music, this is a god-send.  The music used in this film is wild.  I love it when movies use music for particular decades in the 20th century.  It really sells the world in which these characters exist.  I may end up picking up the soundtrack at some point.  I would put the soundtrack up there with Guardians of the Galaxy.

If there’s an issue with Atomic Blonde, it’s the character development.  While we get to see different sides to McAvoy’s character, we don’t learn a whole lot about Theron’s Lorraine, aside from the fact that she’s an ass-kicking British spy.  Aside from that, we don’t learn a lot about her training or where she really comes from.  I suppose that adds to the mystery of the character,  but it doesn’t really give us much to empathize with.  Thankfully, the action and story make up for that.  It’s just an irritating little detail that you can’t help but notice.  Overall, though, this is a sublime piece of action cinema and it must be seen by fans of the genre.  This is one of the most surprising action films of the year.

My Final Recommendation:  This one is a must-see. 9/10

The Villainess

Released: June 2017

Director: Byung-gil Jung

Not Rated

Run Time: 129 Minutes

Distributor(USA): Well Go USA

Genre: Action/Thriller

Ok-bin Kim: Sook-hee
Ha-kyun Shin: Joong-sang
Jun Sung: Hyun-soo
Seo-hyeong Kim
Eun-ji Jo: Kim Seon

As someone who is an avid fan of Asian cinema, I’ve seen my fair share of truly excellent films and also my share of some absolute trash.  Asian cinema is no different than the West in this regard.  I’ve seen films from all over Asia: Vietnam, China, Japan, Indonesia, India, and Thailand.  Each country has its own unique visual flair and style.  While many martial arts films tend to come from Hong Kong, they no longer hold the monopoly on the Asian action film scene.  Some of the countries I mentioned have been able to pull their weight as far as action goes.  There is a country in Asia that I’ve found that can really hit it out of the park in terms of cinematography, choreography and acting.  That country is South Korea.  South Korea has put out some of my personal favorite action films including Shadowless Sword, Memories of the Sword and thrillers like I Saw The Devil.  These guys don’t pull punches when it comes to action, and that’s a good thing.  However, not everything that they have done is going to be great.  Enter The Villainess, a newly released action-thriller.

The story of The Villainess involves Sook-hee, a young woman recruited into a shadowy agency who is a personal quest to avenge her father’s murder.  That is the plot in a nutshell and it’s not really a bad set up.  It’s actually quite compelling when it makes sense.  That’s one of the biggest problems I have with the film:  The narrative.  The narrative is so fractured and all over the place that it’s really difficult to follow what’s happening.  In my honest opinion, a fractured narrative, even on purpose, almost never works.  Why?  Because the audience tends to get confused about who is who and what is what.  All those flashbacks are not really appropriate for a revenge-thriller.  The pacing of the film is also completely whacked.  The opening and closing acts of the film are non-stop action, but the middle section of the film grinds the whole damn thing to a halt for character development.  I wouldn’t have minded so much if the film didn’t jump back and forth between the past and the present.  It doesn’t even tell you when it’s going to do that.  As a result, the second act of the film is a jumbled mess.  Don’t get me wrong, we get to learn more about our main character and her desire to live a normal life, but the whole thing is just chopped to bits.

The action is where the film is at its finest.  The opening action sequence takes place almost from a first-person perspective a la Hardcore Henry.  It’s absolutely bonkers.  The knife-fights are really something to behold.  Not only that, there’s a totally awesome bike sequences on which a sword fight takes place.  I’m not kidding.  The best thing is, the whole affair was mostly done without the use of CGI.  This is a very bloody film and rightly so.  The action is well-choreographed and well shot so we can actually see what’s going on.  The gun fights are intense and absolutely brutal.  The acting is also very strong across the board.  Kim Ok-bin shows that she is more than capable of standing up to the boys.  Not only is she a compelling character, she’s also a complete bad-ass when it comes to the action sequences.  Everyone here pulls their weight, and the acting is really convincing.

Unfortunately, it’s not just that bloated middle section where the film falls flat.  There are certain visual elements that really just don’t work.  Some of the action sequences have clearly been enhanced by some CGI and it’s not very good.  There’s a sequence in which Sook-hee jumps off a bridge and you can tell right away that it’s blatantly fake.  Some of the chase sequences feature some “manipulation” as it were.

There’s a been a lot of hullabaloo about The Villainess being one of the greatest action movies of the year.  Some have even compared it to the likes of John Wick and Kill Bill.  The sad reality is that it doesn’t even come close to matching those movies.  Not in terms of action or narrative.  The Villainess is really good when the leash comes off and the action is allowed to explode.  Unfortunately, it all comes back to that bloated second act that slows everything down.   I’m all for character development in a movie like this, don’t get me wrong.  It just could have been a lot better.  I’ve seen it done better.  I don’t hate the film at all.  There’s a lot to like here, but you have to have a bit of patience as the narrative is completely jumbled.  Not only that, the film is very depressing.  I like dark movies, but there was no real hope to be found in this movie.  Ultimately, The Villainess, despite it’s ambition, never really rises to anything more than mediocre.  It’s a shame, too.  I wanted to love this movie.  As it stands, I only love parts of it, while others are just kind of….meh.  I really do like Kim Ok-bin as an actress, though.  She can kick ass like it’s nobody’s business.  She just needs a better film to showcase her talents.  As it stands, The Villainess is passable, but nothing more.

My Final Recommendation: Rent it first to see if you like it. 6.5/10

Justice League

Released: November 2017

Director: Zack Snyder

Run Time: 121 Minutes

Rated PG-13

Distributor: Warner Bros./DC Comics

Genre: Action/Science Fiction

Ben Affleck: Bruce Wayne/Batman
Henry Cavill: Clark Kent/Superman
Gal Gadot: Diana Prince/Wonder Woman
Ezra Miller: Barry Allen/The Flash
Jason Momoa: Arthur Curry/Aquaman
Ray Fisher: Victor Stone/Cyborg
Amy Adams: Lois Lane
Jeremy Irons: Alfred
Diane Lane: Martha Kent
J.K. Simmons: Commissioner Gordon
Ciaran Hinds: Steppenwolf(Voice)
Amber Heard: Mera
Joe Morton: Silas Stone

When Iron Man was released back in 2008, it was the first step in bringing about The Avengers.  After a few movies, we finally got the Marvel Dream Team that everybody was hoping for in 2012.  It was and is still one of the coolest superhero movies ever made.  So, now that Marvel had The Avengers, what did Warner Bros. and DC have to offer?  In 2013, the Superman reboot, Man of Steel was released to mostly positive reviews and gave the superhero a grittier and darker edge than we were used to seeing from the Big Blue Boy Scout.  You want to know something?  It worked.  After the success of Man of Steel, Warner Bros. began working on a follow-up film that would essentially kick-off the DC Expanded Universe.  Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice began early pre-production and would finally see release in 2016 to mixed reviews.  Wonder Woman was also in production and would be released in the summer of 2017.  It was going to be the film that led up to the Justice League film that they’ve been planning for a while.  After years of waiting and hoping, we finally get to see the first live-action Justice League movie.  So….was it worth the wait?

By the end of Dawn of Justice, we saw Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman finally team up to take on the threat known as Doomsday, brought forth by the maniacal Lex Luthor.  During the battle, Superman was killed and the world was left to question what would happen in Superman’s absence.  As it turns out, his death had a very negative impact on the world.  Chaos began to spread across the world and the appearance of three mysterious boxes began to worry certain people.  One of these “Mother Boxes” was guarded by the Amazons on the island of Themyscera.  When Superman died, these boxes began to shake and glow.  A monstrous being known as Steppenwolf arrives through a portal to reclaim these boxes and claim dominion over the earth.  Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince, as a result, began searching the world for beings who would have the ability to fight Steppenwolf and possibly save the planet.  Their search brings them to Arthur Curry, also known as the Aquaman, Barry Allen a.k.a The Flash, and Victor Stone a.k.a Cyborg.  However, the five of them may not be enough to fight the storm that is coming.  As a follow-up film to Batman V. SupermanJustice League’s story is far less complicated and more stream-lined.  It wastes no time with multiple sub-plots and gets right to the point.  Honestly, that is probably the best direction that Zack Snyder could have gone in.  Dawn of Jusice got a little too complicated for its own good, so it’s awesome to see a follow-up that’s easy to…well…follow.  It’s also a far more light-hearted affair than the previous film.  People had complained that Dawn of Justice got too serious.  Well, I have good news, Justice League adds much-needed humor to the goings-on, and you know what?  The jokes and humor are mostly on-point.  There were more than a few times that I laughed out loud.  It’s not a comedy, but it’s nowhere near as dire as Dawn.

I enjoyed the story, but how’s the rest of the film?  Acting-wise, it’s pretty solid.  Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck return as Wonder Woman and Batman, respectively.  These two really knock it out of the park, I enjoyed their performances quite a bit.  The fact that they are allowed more levity and humor makes the film a lot better.  Now, we have new characters like The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg.  I have to tell you, Jason Momoa just nails it as Aquaman.  He’s clearly physically built for the role, but his talents as an actor really elevate what could have been a fairly standard character.  Ezra Miller is essentially the comic relief as The Flash.  You know what?  He’s actually pretty damned funny.  Ray Fisher is pretty good as Cyborg, but his character has a few problems that I’ll discuss later.  For those wanting to see Henry Cavill return as Superman, it’s worth the wait.  That’s all I will say about him.  Steppenwolf as a villain isn’t the strongest character here.  We’re not really given a lot of motivation for why he does what he does and when he’s not on the screen, we forget about him.  In the comics, Steppenwolf is the uncle and second-in-command of the supervillain/god, Darkseid.  So, we know where the next film is most likely going to go.  However, Steppenwolf is not the most compelling villain in Superman’s Rogue’s Gallery.  J.K. Simmons would have been great as Gordon, had he been given more screen time.

Since Justice League IS an action movie, how’s the action?  Pretty damned solid to be honest.  Yeah, there’s a lot of CGI, but that’s to be expected in a film of this magnitude.  You’re dealing with otherworldly monsters and characters that live underwater.  It’s nowhere near as brutal as Dawn of Justice, but it’s got a lot of “holy shit” moments.  This feels more like a superhero movie than Dawn did.  It keeps the action flowing too.  There are a few moments where it slows down a bit, but then it really kicks it up a notch.  I loved the sequence where the Amazons were taking on Steppenwolf.  That was pretty awesome.  There’s a battle underneath Gotham’s river that’s pretty cool too.  Everyone here gets their chance to shine as a superhero.  Batman and Wonder Woman are pretty obvious, but Aquaman is freaking amazing once he gets his trident.  The Flash is extraordinary as he basically moves really fast, but it’s done in such a way that’s really cool.

Now let’s talk about what the film didn’t get right.  First of all, the film feels a little too short for what’s going on and with the amount of new characters that were introduced.  This could have used an extra 10-15 minutes to really get to know the new superheroes.  Some of the characters feel like they got the short end of the stick.  Cyborg is probably my least favorite of the bunch.  It’s not because Fisher’s a bad actor, he isn’t, but the character is mostly CGI, and sometimes the CG isn’t that good.  Steppenwolf is ALL CGI.  I like the design, I just don’t like how the character doesn’t feel real.  Some of the humor doesn’t quite land, especially in the face of some pretty dark moments.  The 121 minute run-time mandated by Warner Bros. was a really bad idea as the film feels a little rushed.  While the negatives really don’t impact one’s enjoyment of the film, they are noticeable and could have been dealt with.  Hopefully, with the DVD/Blu-Ray, we’ll get an extended cut that will flesh things out a little bit more.  It wasn’t cut all to hell the way that Dawn of Justice was, but there are certain moments that just….end.

So…was Justice League worth the wait?  Yes.  Yes it was.  Is it the greatest comic-book movie ever made?  Not remotely.  Is it the best DC movie ever made?  Again, no, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.  It gives me hope that they are changing course for the better and making the effort to make sure these DC movies are better than what they have been.  I wouldn’t put Justice League up there with Wonder Woman or Logan, but it is a pretty damned good time.  It does what it sets out to do and nothing more.  It’s exciting, intense and funny all at the same time.  It even has a few moments of genuine humanity peppered throughout the picture.  The chemistry between the characters is what elevates this film above obscurity.  They mostly work very well together and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next film.  For those of you hoping that this film would be better than Dawn of Justice, you may rest easy.  It is.  I gave the extended cut of Dawn an 8.5/10 because it improved upon the messy theatrical release.  So, for those of you just looking for a good time, Justice League has it in spades.  It’s worth checking out.

My Final Recommendation: Yes.  Yes, you may enjoy this one.  8.5/10

Universal’s “Dark Universe” In Trouble?

Over the past few days, I’ve been reading up on reports from various sources saying that Universal Studios’ Dark Universe property is in danger of collapsing.  What is the Dark Universe?  It’s supposed to be Universal’s cinematic universe that was to bring back all of Universal’s classic monsters into the modern era.  It’s an interesting concept, but there’s a huge problem:  It stumbled.  Let me explain.  About a year and a half back, it was announced that a new Mummy movie was in the works starring Tom Cruise.  Okay, that’s….interesting.  But it was also announced that The Mummy would be part of a larger universe called the Dark Universe.  Right then and there, I knew this was going to be trouble.  For one:  You don’t announce a cinematic universe until you are absolutely certain that the first film in the franchise is a success.  That was Marvel’s approach with Iron Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  By announcing a universe before the first film is even released undermines any expectations that the audiences may have regarding the direction of these movies.  That was the first nail in the proverbial coffin.  The second nail was the first movie in the Dark Universe: The Mummy.  This was not the movie they should have started with.  The addition of Tom Cruise to the film was the least of its problems.  This movie was created with the direct intent of kick-starting the Dark Universe.  It featured some interesting “cameos” from all the other monster movies including Creature from the Black Lagoon.  The addition of Jekyll and Hyde also worked against the film.  There’s also the fact that the film brought nothing new to the genre and was overly serious.  I didn’t hate the film.  I think it got some things right, especially with the villain, but there was nothing here that hasn’t been done before and done better.

The next film in the franchise would have been Bride of Frankenstein, but that seems to have stalled as Angelina Jolie opted to go for a second Maleficent film instead.  That’s another road bump.  Most recently, we’ve learned that the two top producers of the Dark Universe have jumped ship: Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan.  The offices that were set up specifically for this particular franchise are empty, by all accounts.  Things are not looking good for the Dark Universe.  This whole thing was sabotaged from the beginning with really stupid decision-making.  Again, it’s not a terrible concept by bringing the old monsters into the modern film era, but it has to be done in such a way that respects the source material.  So far, that hasn’t happened.  The Invisible Man is supposed to be the next film to be released next year.  Is there a possibility for the Dark Universe to be salvaged at this point?  It’s possible, but The Invisible Man would have to be absolutely amazing in order for that to happen.  Another possibility is to release smaller movies under the same logo but not connected to each other.  That was The Mummy’s biggest failing:  Wanting to bring all the other monsters into the same universe.  However, and this is speculation on my part, if The Invisible Man flops at the box-office, the Dark Universe will die with it.  I don’t want to see the Dark Universe fail, but the decisions that were made early on, kind of made it nearly a foregone conclusion.  Can they turn it around?  I hope so.