Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Dress To Kill and Fight Like A Girl

An undercover MI6 agent is sent to Berlin during the Cold War to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a missing list of double agents. 

Movies like Atomic Blonde, with this type of spy thriller, are a bit of a throwback. Plus, setting this story at the very beginning of a new era, of technological modernity where spycraft is more about computers and digital surveillance, gives it a sense of nostalgia that Bond or Bourne could never achieve today. Atomic Blonde keeps its plot as simple as possible. This film is based on The Coldest City graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart.

Atomic Blonde is an excuse to watch a beautiful, deviously clever female avatar as she is stripped naked, dolled up and repeatedly beaten down only to rise again. Dress her up, dress her down, smack her around and wait for payback. This sort of spectacle isn’t new, even if moviemakers like to insist otherwise. What is moderately different here is the sexed-up packaging of the violence in combination with Ms. Theron physicality. Like James Bond, her character, Lorraine shoots to kill while remaining fabulously dressed to kill. This means she gets slammed around a lot and takes almost as much punishment as she gives. She is a punching bag, but she is also a fantasist’s dream girl, a sort of avenging goddess, a destroyer of men. Indeed, for her part, Ms. Theron looks hot and color coordinated. With black-and-white outfits that suit her character’s ambiguity. Lorraine smokes and drinks and likes cold baths, preferably filled with ice cubes that do wonders for bruises and nipples. When she isn’t moodily bathing or staring, she does a surprising amount of walking. She goes here, promenades there, strolls down halls and mean streets that the director David Leitch turns into fashion runways. 

Though, building off of her previous work in films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron continues to prove herself to be one of the most talented action stars of her generation. She is given the difficult task of switching between two very different gears when playing Lorraine: the slick and calculated MI6 agent who must keep a low profile whenever she can, and the savage, ruthless killer all of her enemies face the moment the first shot is fired or fist is thrown. She pulls both sides of the character off with ease and throws herself into the action sequences with a tenacity and dedication that makes her one of the most believable action heroes in recent memory. Ms. Theron truly is ready to play Bond. However, James McAvoy sidles into the story looking all cool or something and wearing a smirk he needs to employ more cautiously.

You should have understood by now that what this ‘80s style spy thriller does very well is its fight scenes. Not surprising with John Wick co-director and former stuntman David Leitch literally calling the shots. In terms of action technicality, it is a very different film, replacing Keanu Reeves quick, precise gun shots with a more brutal weight and physicality. John Wick clearly is a model of economic genre filmmaking, and David Leitch gives this movie’s action scenes the same pummelling, visceral quality. Lorraine punches and is punched, and her body is soon mapped by bruises and abrasions. It’s a lot of abuse for such little returns, even if the fights are the best parts of Atomic Blonde Mr. Leitch understands the expressivity of hand-to-hand fights and he frames them accordingly, pushing in when it counts and pulling back to show entire bodies in whirling motion. The stunts truly are breathtaking, with one brutal fight shot in a long hand-held sequence that roams down stairs, through an apartment and into a car chase.

While it is not a first to see, a woman battered about to this extent on screen, it is unusual. Most of Lorraine’s opponents are male, and none hold back. It would be deeply disturbing was it almost anyone but Theron; she projects such formidable badassitude that it does not for a moment read like victimisation. Broughton uses whatever is to hand, and leverages her enemies’ own momentum against them, so you believe she could hold her own. Moreover, there is no talking about Atomic Blonde without giving a shout-out to its soundtrack. Composed by Tyler Bates, who also did the two Guardians of the Galaxy films, the electric score pumps through the film. But more than that are the song choices. Prepare to download the soundtrack as soon as you walk out of the cinema. Don’t fight it, it’s an inevitability.

Overall, Atomic Blonde is an action spy thriller, that leans more heavily into being a John Wick film than it does a John le CarrĂ©-esque espionage tale. The battle between those two tones can be occasionally distracting throughout the runtime though. But Atomic Blonde has plenty of attitude and the fervent style of its execution is so exciting to watch that it made it one of the best times I have had in the theatre this year.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Valerian and the City Of A Thousand Planets

A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.

A long time ago in our very own galaxy, Luc Besson dreamed of directing a movie version of a French comic book series. Some movie buffs even consider the source to have been an influence on George Lucas’ original Star Wars movie. This equation clearly works the other way around in Besson’s hands, as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets finds the director doing his best Star Wars impression. Trying to do something like this is bold in a marketplace that has not traditionally been very welcoming to Star Wars imitators, and even less so, to French imitators. Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is the most ambitious and colossally risky cinematic endeavour since James Cameron made Avatar.

Written as a kind of cocky intergalactic soldier, Valerian ought to be as sexy and charismatic as a young Han Solo, though Dane DeHaan, so good in brooding-emo mode, seems incapable of playing the kind of goofy insouciance that made Harrison Ford so irresistible. Despite holding the rank of major, Valerian looks like an overgrown kid. Fortunately, his co-star is cool enough for the both of them. As played by British fashion model Cara Delevingne, a revelation here: sassy, sarcastic and spontaneous. Laureline holds true to one of Besson’s core beliefs: that nothing is sexier than an assertive, empowered leading lady. Sure, she needs rescuing at times, but more often than not, she’s the one getting Valerian out of trouble. She’s just a sergeant, but every bit as capable as her commanding officer, and the film is considerably more fun when following her character. Indeed, the chemistry between the two may be odd, but they make a good team, constantly trying to prove themselves to one another while each pretending not to care.

Most of the time, Valerian is too busy following orders to question what his superiors are asking, but such blind obedience has its bounds, since the plot of Valerian concerns a vast military coverup for a cataclysm that Besson depicts in the film’s opening minutes: the near-annihilation of a seemingly primitive, yet peaceful species known as Pearls. Tall and slender, like Avatar’s Na’vi, with bald heads and iridescent opaline skin, the Pearls are the most elegant and expressive of the movie’s many computer-generated aliens. Their long limbs give them a graceful form, while their faces are nuanced enough to convey even subtle emotions. These people are a testament to just how sophisticated performance capture technology has become, even in someone other than Andy Serkis’ hands.

Luc Besson is one of the few living directors with both the ambition and the ability to establish his own universe. At a time when Star Wars itself has gone corporate, Valerian manages to be both cutting-edge and delightfully old-school; featuring a mind-blowing range of environments and stunning computer-generated alien characters. The kind of wild, endlessly creative thrill ride that only the director of The Fifth Element could deliver. The technologies used here enabled him to let loose with digital techniques he wished he'd had back on The Fifth Element. Such innovations make it possible for Besson to build upon the multiculturalism of the Star Wars series in a big way, taking the intermingling of species in a classic scene and expanding it to a vast city named Alpha, where a seemingly infinite number of aliens happily stick to their roles, while humans of all colours run the show. No doubt, there are dark and sordid Blade Runner-esque corners to this hyper-modern megalopolis, but Besson never lingers long enough for us to play more than fly-by tourist as he follows Valerian and Laureline through these various realms.

Generally speaking, Besson works at a fast pace, using dynamic framing and tight editing to convey loads of visual information. The movie is designed to propel us from one sequence to the next, and it’s remarkably effective at doing so without providing a clear notion of what the duo’s mission is supposed to be. Early on, they’re sent to Big Market, a massive virtual-reality bazaar where Valerian manages to retrieve an adorable, ultra-rare creature known as a Mül Converter, which can make copies of anything it ingests, from a Jabba the Hutt-like black trader voiced by John Goodman. This is when the movie kicks in, which is where audiences first feel like we are discovering a truly visionary new environment for the first time. Though Luc Besson manages to sustain that effect throughout the film’s time on Alpha.

Finally, the promises are faithfully kept, but there is so much more going on. To say that Valerian is a science-fiction epic doesn’t quite do it justice. Imagine crushing a DVD of The Phantom Menace into a fine powder, tossing in some Ecstasy and a pinch of pepper for the colour and snorting the resulting mixture while wearing a virtual reality helmet in a Las Vegas karaoke bar. That sounds like too much fun, but you get the idea.

Overall, you should applaud Luc Besson as this is a world-building where not even the sky is the limit and every frame is stuffed with a mad-genius invention.