Atomic Blonde – Day 21 NaBloPoMo 2017

Atomic Blonde 2017. Directed by David Leitch.

I only watched this for the first time a few days ago – it had quite a short run at my local cinemas – and I was expecting something of a spy-romp, in the vein of Modesty Blaise (1966). It was a surprisingly taut and very stylish spy thriller but I found the narrative (based on a graphic novel “The Coldest City”) a little on the light side.

The cast are universally excellent, from Charlize Theron leading the pack as the MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton, James McAvoy at his sleazy best as the Berlin MI6 agent, and Sofia Boutella as the French agent, Delphine. They are ably supported by three of my favourite actors – John Goodman, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones. And look out for baby-faced Bill Skarsgard who recently starred as Pennywise in It (2017).

There’s a couple of editing choices in the action scenes that I questioned but generally, this is where the movie shone. Unfortunately, the script is pretty flimsy and if it weren’t for Theron’s incredible and insightful performance as the world-weary spy, this probably would’ve collapsed in on itself and totally bombed. It’s yet another case of a really fine cast of actors having little to work with.

Having said that, this is a perfectly serviceable first feature from David Leitch, a well-known stuntman and stunt coordinator (he’s been Brad Pitt’s stunt double in something like five of his films). Leitch has worked a lot with the Wachowskis and was an uncredited director on the surprise hit, John Wick (2014). I look forward to seeing how his directing career progresses – apparently his next film will be the Deadpool sequel.

Nevertheless, Atomic Blonde is another perfectly fine popcorn movie and (despite narrative issues) a solid start for David Leitch.

Wonder Woman – Day 10 NaBloPoMo 2017

Wonder Woman (2017). Directed by Patty Jenkins.

Finally, the elephant in the blockbuster, comic book movie room got a mention – that is to say, a female super hero at long last got her own dedicated feature film. Those of you who are regular readers will immediately understand this is a big thing for me and many other comic book movie fans. And let’s face it, after yesterday, female representation has been on my mind quite a lot!

The fact that it came via DC and not from the Marvel Cinematic Universe was something of a surprise initially – I was hopeful that Marvel would’ve got the memo and given Scarlett Johansson her richly deserved Black Widow stand-alone film. Sadly, I think it’s very unlikely that will ever happen now, but I was heartened to see last week that Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok) has pitched an all-women Marvel ensemble film to MCU production chief, Kevin Feige. And there’s Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larsen to look forward to in 2019.

But back to Diana Prince. Although this iteration of Wonder Woman was first introduced in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, (and was possibly the best thing about the movie) this is entirely her film, and origin story. Unlike most DC material, the lighting and colour palette are much brighter and in the first act on Themyscira (Paradise Island in the comics), even downright colourful! The war scenes are a decently downbeat colour contrast and even London looks less drab that one would normally expect (apologies to UK friends – but I’m sure you know what I mean!)

The first act is really great fun, the Amazons are fabulous with Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright excellent as Hippolyta and Antiope. In fact, I’d love to see a movie about them – that would be excellent!

And I have to say, Gal Gidot is a joy. She is beautiful, athletic and admirably portrays that mix of strength and self-assurance against innocence and wonder, not an easy thing to balance. She carries the film and does it (where the script allows her) very well indeed. I know it’s expected to have a love interest in these kinds of mainstream films, but it disappoints me that she had to fall for the first man she sets eyes on. Chris Pine is suitably handsome, bland and heroic as Steve Trevor, but thankfully doesn’t overplay his role and is a good foil for Gidot’s Diana. To me, this immediately points to good direction from Patty Jenkins. The supporting cast are solid but the standout is the wonderful Lucy Davis, who steals every scene she’s in as Steve Trevor’s assistant, Etta Candy.

For the most part, the fight scenes are reasonable and quite well choreographed but there are some very obvious CGI clunkers that took me out of the moment and reminded me that this is after all, a DC film.

The final act however, and the “boss fight” descend into an overlong and almost turgid mess. I think this is something that has become an all too common feature of nearly all blockbuster comic book films in recent years, but I’m hopeful that the producers will get the message sooner rather than later and tighten up their endings. Coupled with this, the lighting and colour all ebbed away into the usual DC trademark dark blue grey tones. I don’t know who told them that these film tones signify “cool” and “edgy” but they’ve certainly been sold a lemon on that one!

Overall, I was really impressed with the first two thirds of this film and Patty Jenkins is a director I’ll be watching now with interest. It’s just sad that the ending fell pretty flat after such a solid build up. This is a good popcorn flick and while it isn’t world changing, it’s certainly a step in a more equitable direction. More please!

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) EuropaCorp Films, screenplay and directed by Luc Besson.

I’m a very forgiving film-goer. If a story is really good, or if a filmmaker has a particularly unique or ground-breaking vision I’m happy to buy into it. In short, I’d rather see films that are out of the ordinary and aren’t just playing it safe. Sadly, Luc Besson’s latest offering isn’t any of those things.

The source for this extravaganza are the much-loved and celebrated comic books by Jean-Claude Mezieres and Pierre Christin, which first appeared in the 1970’s and I confess I haven’t read them, though I plan to in coming weeks.

I should point out my allegiance from the outset. Lucy (2014) and Subway (1985) are interesting films I really enjoyed, and Leon: The Professional (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997) while both flawed movies remain firm personal favourites. But from the very start, there’s something not quite right about Valerian.

It opened very promisingly, with the wonderful set up of Alpha (and a much too brief cameo by Rutger Hauer). In the first act however, there’s a narrative misstep that set up a dissonance which jarred and stayed with me for the whole film. On the plus side, the visuals are sumptuous, the styling is really beautiful and the fight scenes (hand to hand and space battles) are well choreographed.

The second act lost its way badly, getting bogged down in an unnecessary subplot. This held up the action and made me focus more on the actors. While I admire Clive Owen, I feel he was only there for the pay check. Sam Spruell was much better as General Okto-Bar and both Herbie Hancock and Ethan Hawke were too briefly on screen.

With respect to casting, three things stand out in this film. Firstly, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne are very pretty and have the right look for the film. As a property that’s developed from an existing visual source, that’s reasonably important. Secondly, they couldn’t act their way out of a wet paper bag and have zero on-screen chemistry. One of the many saving graces of The Fifth Element is the casting of some serious acting talent, in particular, established action star Bruce Willis, who carries the film on his back, with able assistance from Ian Holm and the always watchable Gary Oldman. Sadly, there is no heavyweight help here – they don’t have enough screen time to pull it out of the mire. Third and finally, while I’m no fan of her music, Rihanna is fabulous as Bubble, and I think it’s worth seeing this just for her scenes.

I think in many ways Valerian shows how far ahead of its time The Fifth Element was. Besson has admitted that the original comics influenced his earlier film greatly and there were framing moments, edits in action scenes, even sections of dialogue in Valerian that took me back to it. So I think I’ll watch The Fifth Element again.

In conclusion, it’s an okay popcorn flick, the two leads drag it down but it was worth paying to see it on the big screen just for the spectacle.