Atomic Blonde (2017)

29 Jul

1989 Berlin. The wall is just a few days short of tumbling down and tensions between the East and the West halves of the city have never been higher. This is the setting we are placed in while being introduced to a British M16 spy Lorraine (Charlize Theron) who has been assigned to meet with David Percival (James McAvoy), a German operative who has sensitive information pertaining to both American, British, and Russian interests which could unravel an international conspiracy. The events of Atomic Blonde are mostly presented to us in flashback, as Lorraine is presenting her side of the story under interrogation by British and American authorities (Toby Jones, and John Goodman, respectively).  

What starts out as a simple spy thriller premise quickly unfolds into a stylish and sleek action film, filled to the brim with neon lights, martial arts, and shootouts. Unfortunately, much of the action comes at the expense of the characters, who come across as simple, two-dimensional cutouts from spy movie cliches.  The nonsensical story goes to great lengths to distract us from simple plot holes; what should have been fleshed out in the writer’s room gets covered up with the attention-grabbing, one-take fight scene or the frequent german rock song blasting out the speakers. Oh, and in case you forgot this was a German presentation, don’t worry – the film goes so far out of the way to remind us at every opportunity; most characters don’t go more than two minutes without saying the word “Berlin”. The film does have a few bright spots. Charlize Theron, our kick-ass heroine, absolutely devours every minute she is on screen. Her character delivers just enough deadpan humor to help carry us though the limp story. James McAvoy is also pretty good, doing his best Tyler Durden impersonation with a German twist.

Atomic Blonde aims to be a star-studded rock show, and in many aspects (especially on a visual level) it succeeds. But, without any substance behind what’s on screen you can’t help but think the director turned to an old trick stage producers will use when the band starts to suck: when in doubt – just turn up the volume and add some strobe lights.

Bottom Line: In a textbook example of style over substance, Atomic Blonde delivers a violent 120-minute music video at the expense of character, tension, or a sensible narrative.

Rating: 5/10

Film recipe: John Wick + Wanted + Salt 

It Comes At Night (2017)

9 Jun

Hot off the heels from his directorial debut Krisha, Trey Edward Shults again uses the camera as his psychological tool to pry open and dismantle the collective psyche of a family in chaos, this time with a horror-centric approach.

It Comes At Night is a psychological thriller set somewhere in a remote post-apocalyptic North America. A fatal disease has spread so fast that the core pillars of society have collapsed, triggering Paul (Joel Edgerton) to place his family on lockdown in a secluded cabin some 50 miles or so away from the nearest city center. It’s here they learn to be self-reliant, living day by day completely off the grid and away from any other survivors. Soon, Paul crosses paths with Will (Chris Abbott), another survivor who might be willing to trade some of his food in exchange for a truck-ride back to his family.  Paranoia abounds.

If it wasn’t already clear from the title, it becomes obvious from the first few minutes of the opening scene that things are going to get dark (both figuratively and literally).  Shults has a real talent for avoiding first act exposition and slowly revealing details about this world bit by bit.  Instead, the director focuses his energy creating tension out of the smallest moments with help from the cinematographer Drew Daniels;  a lingering slow zoom through an empty hallway becomes absolutely horrifying in the hands of these two. The entirety of the film takes place either inside Paul’s cabin or the woods directly adjacent to it, creating a claustrophobic quality that increases in tension along with the rising emotional status of our characters. It Comes At Night isn’t a film that is concerned with what anyone does or says so much as it is with what is going on in the mental spaces between the characters.  This type of film would not work if it wasn’t for the acting strength of everyone involved, and fortunately the supporting cast of Riley Keough, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. create a palatable unease within their performances.  It’s remarkable how much genuine suspense can be milked from It Comes At Night’s slim narrative; the spooks are few and far between, but the emotional payoffs this film brings to the table are the powerful kind that stick in your gut after the credits roll.

Bottom Line: Confident direction and a refusal for all things explained make It Comes At Night an essential and thrilling piece of psychologically provocative cinema. 

Rating: 8/10 

Film recipe:  Prisoners + Children of Men + The Road

Get Out (2017)

24 Feb

Let’s say you’re on the road to meet your girlfriend’s parents for the first time. This situation alone is the nightmare of many, but let’s imagine for a second that they might – heaven forbid – be a bit racist. Not the Alabama-redneck, confederate-flag-toting kind of racist, but more like the passive-aggressive, educated white “we voted for Obama, we promise!” kind of racist. This is the premise for the new horror comedy Get Out; the terror here is not sourced from some demonic supernatural entity or schizophrenic masked serial killer but from ol’ fashioned disdain of having a white daughter who is currently dating a black man.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is naturally a bit apprehensive to meet Rose’s (Allison Williams) parents after hearing that he is, in fact, the first person of color she has ever dated. Followed by some hilariously awkward conversations with Miss and Mr. Armitage (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford, respectively) that only confirm Chris’ racial paranoia, and a few weird encounters with missing person Andrew (Lakeith Stanfield) and Rose’s brother (Caleb Landry Jones) seal the deal: something is wayyyy off about the Armitage family.  What starts out as a slow burn psychological thriller soon gives way to a twisty, violent nail biter as Chris peels back the layers of the Armitage family and does his best to survive his weekend away.

Make no mistake: Get Out is a serious-minded horror film, but also one that is self-aware and also manages to pack a biting (and often hilarious) socio-political punch. It’s a very bold film to say the least – especially in a post-Obama America where racial tensions were supposed to be long dissolved. Director Jordan Peele confidently holds his own as a feature-length director, and brings his witty comedic skills to the script.  Though some scenes feels unnecessary at times, most of what we see is a tightly-controlled and well-executed genre piece that plays at length with uncomfortable racial undertones. It’s an incredibly awkward mix that should’ve fallen apart at the seams (I can’t imagine how a major Hollywood studio even found the balls to fund something like this) but in the hands of Peele, everything works out beautifully and leaves me wanting more.

Bottom Line: A highly-entertaining directorial debut by Jordan Peele of Key & Peele fame, Get Out plays out like an extended College Humor skit in the best way possible. 

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Rating: 8/10 

Film recipe: You’re Next! + Tucker & Dale vs Evil + House of the Devil 

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (2017)

23 Feb

It’s a cruel, cruel world. Taking place in what could only be Trump’s America, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore details the day-to-day life of Ruth (Melanie Lynskey), a jaded medical assistant who seems disgusted by the self-centeredness of a universe where “everyone I see is an asshole.” Ruth lives at home; her only friend is Angie, a busy housewife who has no time to listen when she nearly has an emotional breakdown after becoming a crime victim. It’s enough to push Ruth over the edge and investigate the perpetrators on her own terms, enlisting the help of her violent, short-tempered neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood) who just also happens to be a skilled martial artist.

Macon Blair, a skilled actor making his directorial debut, tightly commands every moment of this pitch-black comedic thriller. The jokes are few and far between, but they are delivered in such sly fashion they have a big impact (the bar scene is awkward enough to rival any episode from The Office). Blair, who comes fresh off of acting in Jeremy Saulnier’s acclaimed indie thrillers Green Room and Blue Ruin, is obviously a big genre fan himself, and his script here takes from a variety of influences (Martin McDonagh and the Coen brothers come to mind) while still feeling fresh and original. Lynskey gives her career-best performance as someone who is constantly weighed by the anxieties of the modern world but still someone who wants to make the altruistic change she wishes she could see in other people.

The story gets bumpy at around the halfway mark, but the few narrative issues are easily put aside when the film dives headfirst into its white-knuckle, absolutely batshit-insane third act. Here Blair’s talent shines like a beacon and he creates enormous amounts of tension in an incredibly tight timeframe. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a taut little thriller that leaves a bigger impression than it should.

Elijah Wood and Melanie Lynskey appear in I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore by Macon Blair, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Allyson Riggs.

Bottom Line: A genre-infused piece that shows Macon Blair’s inherent directorial sensibilities,  I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a deliciously clever and innovative take on the vigilante revenge story. It’s also incredibly suspenseful and drop-dead hilarious. 

Rating: 8/10 

Film Recipe: Fargo + In Bruges + Straw Dogs + Gran Torino 

A Cure For Wellness (2017)

16 Feb

When I first saw the trailer for Gore Verbinski‘s A Cure For WellnessI was flooded with excitement. A known horror director making a genre comeback with (what looked like, at least) an artfully driven psychological drama – what could go wrong?

Well…. a lot of things actually.

The film starts out with a young businessman (Dane DeHaan) named Lockhart who is put on assignment to track down his missing CEO in rural Sweden and bring him back to New York City so he can put the finishing touches on a corporate merger. Lockhart soon discovers that his boss has found a comfortable home at his new estate: a spa-like wellness residency center that uses experimental forms of hydrotherapy to cure its many patients. Things get complicated when Lockhart decides to do some investigating into the colorful history of the center, exposing a dark rabbit hole of medical malpractice amongst other terrible things that could only take place in rural Sweden.

Right off the bat, Verbinski struggles a bit with the tone. A blockbuster veteran, he sets up the drama with broad, vague narrative points and ignores the details (in this case, obvious plot holes) that good genre writers are accustomed to fleshing out before getting into the spooky stuff. In his more accessible films like Pirates of the Caribbeanthis setup works. But in the horror genre (and especially with a film that seems geared for adults with it’s R rating) you can’t get away without explaining the obvious, leading the film to play in that awkward space between cliche and camp.

The film takes it’s time getting to scares, but around the one hour mark things get really interesting and you can almost start to see all the horror ingredients come together to cook up something great. Just when you think the action is starting to take flight, we get some exposition explaining the used-too-often urban legend trope (locals saying something spooky about the property a long time ago and that’s why someone is acting spooky now) or the needless flashbacks of Lockhart’s childhood trauma. All of it feels like extra baggage that weighs the film down and extends its already-lengthy runtime.  Cut to Dane DeHaan snooping around and looking puzzled for a few good moments and then cut again to some gross-out imagery and then again back to more flashbacks/exposition ad infinitum. By the time the third act finally rolls around, the film feels too damn repetitive for any of the usual big reveals to even matter and instead the audience is just concerned with who gets to kill who.

There is a lot of cool things to admire with A Cure For Wellness; it looks absolutely stunning (minus that CGI deer) and as with Verbinski’s other films, you get a cool immersive world to get lost into. There are moments of genuine suspense and some great scenes that show off Verbinski as someone with a natural director’s eye.  Collectively though, it fails to add up to anything noteworthy and you get the feeling that the film is simply a sad example of a blockbuster director trying to find his footing in smaller genre territory and getting lost in the process.

Bottom Line: While its many strengths outweigh its smaller issues, A Cure For Wellness is really a mediocre horror film that so easily could have been a great one with a decent editor and genre writer in tow.  It does however double as a nice preview of what to expect when Trump repeals obamacare in a few years. 

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Rating: 6/10 

Film recipe: The Shining + Crimson Peak + Shutter Island + 80 minutes of Dane DeHaan making WTF faces

Split (2017)

8 Feb

Back in the late 90’s and early 00’s, M. Night Shyamalan was the go-to director for plot-heavy genre fare.  Well received by critics and audiences alike,  his breakout film The Sixth Sense was nominated for a whopping 6 Oscars (when was the last time a horror film was nominated for Best Picture?) and became part of the pop-culture zeitgeist. A few hits and misfires afterward (mostly misfires) and the career of the man who was once revered by many as “The Next Hitchcock ” is in question. Enter Split, the film that seems destined to pivot Shyamalan back into the genre spotlight with a little help from the indie horror collective Blumhouse Productions.

Split is one of those premise-driven horror stories that borrows a few tropes from different aspects of the genre. A few teen girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) are abducted out of the blue by a mentally ill creeper (James McAvoy)  and are held hostage in some secluded underground bunker. We learn though some expository dialogue from a therapist named Dr. Fletcher (Becky Buckley) that our abductor Kevin is a man with multiple personalities (23 in fact) that can come and go as they please and seemingly take over Kevin’s personality at will. One is a child named Hedwig. One is a fashion designer named Barry. One is a diabetic named Jade. The most ruthless personality (we are told anyway) and the one who assumedly did the kidnapping is called Dennis, a clean freak with OCD who “enjoys watching little girls get undressed” So there’s that.

Split doesn’t waste any time getting to the action – we see the violence take place even before the opening title makes it way to the screen. Shyamalan does take his time however getting to any sort of suspense, with the first half of the film mostly being filled with two scenarios: 1) the teens awkwardly trying to figure out the particulars of their abduction/abductor and 2) Dr. Fletcher explaining these outright to the audience. It doesn’t quite fit together, and much of the film’s first half feels like Shyamalan isn’t confident enough to run with the premise he set up before his name even appeared in the opening credits. The dialogue for most of these scenes feels so forced and expository, and – at times – thinly veiled with camp aesthetics. I’m almost positive the first appearance of Hedwig was supposed to be more creepy than comical but the theatre I was in started laughing at (not with) McAvoy’s attempt at a 9-year-old boy who wants to brag about the color of his socks.

The film’s third act is when things get really interesting. After a prominent plot twist (a signature of the director’s) things go on overdrive and the Shyamalan with genuine talent shines like a bright beacon of cinematic dread. The last 30 minutes are surprisingly engaging and though not all the pieces of the narrative puzzle fall into place, you get the sense that Shyamalan is trying to flesh out some bigger ideas here. The momentum and suspense builds up at a tidy pace until a last minute cameo that feels nothing more than a shoehorned attempt to remind us that, yes – Shyamalan has directed some great horror movies in his filmography. Split doesn’t quite make the cut his other films have, but it’s still an enjoyable film nonetheless.

Bottom line: You might feel like Shyamalan himself has multiple directorial personalities, but a solid and satisfying third act effectively brings the director back into the horror spotlight. 

Rating: 7/10 

Film recipe: 10 Cloverfield Lane + Identity  

20th Century Women (2017)

2 Feb

What exactly does it mean to please a women? This is one of many questions Jaime (Lucas Zumann) asks his mother in the sharply-detailed period drama 20th Century Women Jaime, as we first see him, is caught at a bit of a crossroads, and is trying to find his natural place in the world. Growing up solely under the care of his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) in late 70’s Santa Barbara California, the world is a confusing place. Especially so during adolescence, when punk rock, feminism, drugs, and pregnancy scares become guiding forces in Jaime’s life. “He needs a strong male influence” Dorothea says, “We need another man in this house..” Enter William (Billy Crudup), a friend and occasional lover of Dorothea who works on renovating the house in exchange for free rent. Then there is Julie (Elle Fanning), Jaime’s best friend who sleeps with (but never sleeps with) him some nights and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), the art school tennant who is recovering from cancer. These five characters (and the house they share together, their interactions with American culture and counterculture, and their experiences with love and sexuality) are what make up the backbone for 20th Century Women. 

Written and directed by Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsucker), 20th Century Women tells a breezy, patchwork narrative that feels authentically lifted straight from someone’s personal photo album of 40 years. The film is a pure snapshot of American 70’s culture, given to us through our eclectic set of characters – each with their own set of internal and external struggles. Formally, things get slightly experimental at times, fusing documentary footage from various historical events interspersed with dramatic scenes shot at higher or lower framerates or with blaring psychedelic colors. The plot jumps around from moment to moment and character to character so frequently which creates more of a specific aesthetic of time and place than any sort of dramatic tension.  At every opportunity, a different cultural beat is featured – though they are often simply given to us straight from a character’s retrospective voiceover. “We didn’t know that the Reagan era was just around the corner, or that AIDS would soon be a scary word…”  Dorothea explains near the end of the film, over a montage of B-roll news footage. All this culminates to form a nostalgic tribute to the value of shared American cultural experiences.

Bottom Line: When taken as a whole, 20th Century Women might miss the dramatic heights it was aiming for, but the many detailed, smaller moments of this film feel intensely relatable, excitingly alive, and sharply authentic. 

Rating: 7/10

Film Recipe: Boyhood + Diary of a Teenage Girl + A touch of Dazed and Confused