Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Atomic Blonde

Title: Atomic Blonde
Director: David Leitch
Released: 2017
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Roland Møller, Jóhannes Jóhannesson             
Plot: It's 1989 and days before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton is dispatched to recover a microfilm that contains the details of every intelligence agent on both sides of the Cold War active in Berlin, only to soon discover that she’s not the only one who wants to find it.

Review: I’m frequently surprised by what films are adapted from graphic novels with “Road to Perdition” and “A History of Violence” being prime examples and this is certainly the case for this film which is adapted from “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston which has since the release of the film been renamed “Atomic Blonde” to strengthen the connection to the film.

While the idea of Charlize Theron being an action star might seem like a new direction for her career following on from show stealing turn as Furiosa in “Mad Mad: Fury Road” but at the same time it could be argued that she’s had this edge to her career since turning up in the problematic yet surprisingly not terrible remake of “The Italian Job” or “Promethus” were she’s seen doing push ups when she leaves her cryo-pod while her fellow crew mates are too busy throwing up. Needless to say much like Linda Hamilton she really is the hidden gem of an action heroine as she certainly proves here as she teams up with Director David Leitch who here minus his “John Wick” co-director Chad Stahelski is clearly attempting to continue in his efforts to re-invent the modern action movie.

While it might be sold on the premise of being a female John Wick a moniker that is almost as cringe-worthy and lazy as Hayao Miyazaki being refered to as the “Disney of Japan”. Sadly this really is not we ultimately end up getting here despite Theron efforts to really deliver something special and to her credit she really is one of the few remarkable things about this film, more so when her performance was the only thing I really wanted to save while the rest of the film just left me wanting to just tear it down to the studs and start over.

For Theron this film is something of a passion project and from her performance it’s certainly clear with her training for the film which saw Theron not only cracking two teeth but also sparring with Keanu Reeves who at the time was also gearing up for “John Wick 2”. When you see them results of her hard work on screen you really have to commend her hard work especially when it adds a sense of realism to her performance. More so when it comes to the action scenes which much like “John Wick” certainly have a kinetic flow to them as well as a touch of realism as her character is frequently beaten up and blooded from each encounter while being shown taken ice baths to deal with the injuries so that she can drag herself through to the completion of her mission. If anything it was these action scenes that I wanted to revisit more than the confusing plotting surround them.

The idea of setting the film during the cold war might seem refreshing it really doesn’t give the film much outside of providing a significant event to set the finale against. More so when going into the film I had no idea that it was even supposed to be set in the late 80’s instead believing that I was going to be watching Theron kicking ass in a post Soviet Russia especially seeing the random ass get up of fellow agent David Percival played here by an underwhelming James McAvoy who I ended up wishing they’d cut from the film or better still just have Joaquin Phoenix reprise his performance from “Buffalo Soldiers” whose character is what Percival essentially is once you remove the spy antics. Sadly due to his significance to the plot we are lumbered with him.

Elsewhere we get do get smaller and more effective performances from Toby Jones who plays Theron’s MI6 superior and much like John Goodman who plays his CIA counterpart is someone I never really tire of showing up in surprising places like this, but here he is really one of the few performances that I wanted to see more of here.

Ultimately the downfall of the film can be found in the plotting which packed with double agents and the inevitable double and dare we say triple crosses end up turning into a confused mess as the relevance of certain characters becomes all the more questionable the more twists that are added while others such as Sofia Boutella’s French agent Delphine are given things to justify their presence in the story which in the case of Delphine seems mainly to provide an unrequited lesbian sex scene between her and Theron which like so much of the padding here added nothing to the story bar some brief titillation, even though the film makers have been quick to defend her role as being a way to humanize Theron’s character despite the fact we are shown numerous shots of her pining for her lover and fellow agent we see being killed at the start of the film.

Soundtrack wise it’s as predictable as to be expected as the usual 80’s pop hits are dusted off because seemingly we can’t have any mention of the cold war without Kaleida’s “99 Luftballons” working its way in there while George Michael’s “Father Figure” just feels miss placed.. We do get a couple of highlights in David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting out fire)” being used to the same effect it was in “Inglorious Bastards” with our female ass kicker putting on her make up while “London Calling” by the Clash works equally well.

Ultimately this is a forgettable spy thriller with some memorable action scenes which much like Theron’s performance will no doubt be one of the few things you remember about it when it’s over. Certainly this is a character I would see developed or dispatched on a less confused plot as this was far from the introduction it deserved.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Heavy Metal

Title: Heavy Metal
Director: Gerald Potterton
Released: 1981
Starring: Rodger Bumpass, John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Alice Playten, Harold Ramis, Percy Rodriguez, Richard Romanus, John Vernon

Plot: An anthology of tales adapted from the pages of the mature comic book “Heavy Metal”

Review: For those not familiar with the mature comic “Heavy Metal” it's no doubt a publication best known for its focus on fantasy and sci-fi stories which are presented with a healthy dose of nudity, violence, drugs and erotica. It’s also a comic which interestingly is also owned by Kevin Eastman who lets not forget was also responsible for giving the world the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”.

The film itself is a bumper collection of nine tales tied together by a mysterious green orb called the Loc-Nar which also describes itself as “the sum of all evils” and as we soon discover has been responsible for influencing societies throughout time and space while usually bringing misfortune to those who encounter it. Each story has its own distinctive style from the “Sin City” style noir of the opening story “Harry Canyon” through to the ultra violent barbarian fantasies of “Den” and “Taarna” which makes it an easy film to get into especially as if you don’t like one story its not long till you move onto a new one.

Directed by Gerald Potterton who is no doubt best known for his work as an animator on arguably the best Beatles movie “Yellow Submarine” here his style is just as experimental incorporating elements of rotoscoping aswell as a distinctive hand drawn animated style which brings to mind the work of Ralph Bakshi. More so when characters frequently can be found engaging in some form of bad or deviant including (but certainly not limited to) a pair of alien pilots snorting mile long lines of coke off the floor of their spaceship.

While the animation style might look a little more dated there is still unquestionably a charm to this hand drawn style of animation and it perfectly suits the stories being told much like the voice cast who might be surprising to see attached to this film and no doubt the result of Ivan Reitman being attached as the producer, but they all really play their roles well with John Candy’s voice work in particular really left me wishing that he had done more voice work as here he really shows a talent for it.

Adding to the action is a classic rock soundtrack which thankfully forgoes the usual obvious choices and instead gives us lesser known tracks from the likes of Cheap Trick, Grand Funk Railroad and Sammy Hagar which really is the kind of soundtrack you want when you open your film with a Corvette being driven out of a spaceship and landing on Earth by it’s astronaut driver (or should that be pilot). Still regardless of the setting of each story the soundtrack somehow works well with the onscreen action, though frustratingly one of the stories being cut due to production delays meant that we lost “Time” by Pink Floyd from the soundtrack.

It’s true that due to the voyeuristic style throughout the film which much like its source material is not something that will suit all tastes, but if you liked the brash style of “Sin City” you will no doubt find this film very much its kindred spirit. Yes it’s rude, foul mouthed and seemingly devoid of even the most base morals but at the same time it’s so much fun that it’s hard to draw too much of an issue with it’s frequently outlandish world view and for fans of adult animation, especially those who came up through the anime boom of the late 80’s and early 90’s will no doubt get a kick out this one.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Boxset Binge #9 - The End of the F***ing World

Adapted from the indie comic series of the same name by Charles S. Forsman the series follows 17 year old James (Alex Lawther) who believes he’s a psychopath and fellow classmate Alyssa (Jessica Barden) who has her own issues including a problematic home life which includes being sexually harassed by her stepfather. Wanting to escape their problems the pair set out on a spontaneous road trip / crime spree.

Switching between it’s two leads who take turn to narrate the story its clear from the start that both James and Alyssa are outsiders. James more obviously as he keeps to himself while observing his fellow students as he attempts to find the perfect victim to evolve his growing psychotic tendances which thanks to some Wes Anderson style framing (which sadly isn't carried past the pilot episode) we see has until now been restrained to various animals. Alyssa on the other side of things feels that she can’t connect with anyone around her as her so called friends want to talk to each other through text messages even when they are sitting across from each other. Equally with her explosive temper and general Don’t give a shit attitude especially with her mother seemingly more focused on living her life of domestic bliss to seemingly notice anything that’s happening with her daughter.

Thrown together the series initially is more focused on wether James will kill Alyssa or not, especially as his every other thought early on seems to be having fantasies of him killing her, but surprisingly its once the series moves past this and focuses instead on these two lost souls finding themselves through each other that the story really starts to find it’s grove with the pair finding themselves soon on the run from the law after a run in with an actual psychopath end messily.

Both Lawther and Barden are great as the leads and really manage to make this unlikely relationship work though the character of James does suffer from being at times limited especially for the first half of the series were he’s essentially limited to his psychotic fantasies and while his character is more redeemed in the second half of the series especially when we find out more about his troubled past. Alyssa however remains a fun and feisty character throughout especially when she’s seemingly unable to find any situation she can’t find someone to fallout with or to subject to her wrath.

Outside of the pairs Bonnie and Clyde antics, the show receives strong support from an interesting mix of characters in particular Gemma Whelan and Wunmi Mosaku as the detectives trying to track down James and Alyssa, while dealing with their own relationship being strained by a misguided advance but like everything in this series nothing should be taken on first impressions and this is certainly the case here as well and to watch them evolve over the course of the series only makes the world more believable as characters are given ample time to be fleshed out into multi-level characters rather than just being included to give a sense of tension to James and Alyssa’s journey.

Certainly this is one of the more unique series of last year it went largely unnoticed despite receiving a strong advertising push. Recently though the series got picked up by Netflix which is possibly the platform that it needs, especially as this fast paced black comedy is still worth discovering.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Elwood's Essentials #17 - The Crow

Title: The Crow
Director: Alex Proyas
Released: 1994
Starring: Brandon Lee, Michael Wincott, Ernie Hudson, Rochekke Davis, Bai Ling, David Patrick Kelly, Angel David, Jon Polito, Tony Todd, Sofia Shinas, Michael Massee, Laurence Mason

Plot: One year after being murdered Eric Draven (Lee) is resurrected by the power of The Crow to extract revenge on the gang who killed him and his fiancée Shelly (Shinas)

Review: An iconic cult movie for a number of reasons especially in terms of style and design aswell as the tragic death of leading man Brandon Lee in an event echoing the death of his own father Bruce Lee. More so when this film much like “Enter The Dragon” is frequently seen as the film which would have finally launched Brandon into the mainstream having previously put in memorable turns in “Showdown In Little Tokyo” and “Rapid Fire”. Certainly for myself it was one of those films whose VHS cover drew me in long before I knew anything about the film or it’s tragic and highly problematic production as I discovered it of all places in my local (and long since defunct) record store and since that initial discovery has remained a film I still love to go back and revisit.

Based on the equally cult comic book by James O’Barr who had originally wrote the story as a way of dealing with his own personal grief when his fiancée was killed by a drunk driver, while drawing further inspiration for the story from a newspaper article he'd read about a young couple who were killed in Detroit for a $20 engagement ring. At the same time it should be noted that while the source comic is still an incredible piece of work and certainly raw emotion with its distinctive black and white illustration it’s not a piece which works as a straight adaption. As such instead of following the source material’s path of unflinching violent revenge between bouts of Eric’s emotional torment we get a more traditional revenge movie yet one which still retains the core elements of the source material.

Proyas brings the world certainly to life here as he paints a crime riddled vision of Detroit were it is almost permanently night and raining, only allowing some colour into the world once Eric gets close to completing his quest for revenge. Proyas had though originally wanted to shoot the film completely in black and white and only use colour for the flashback sequences which the studio unsurprisingly wouldn’t get behind especially for what was already a risky concept. Still while perhaps not the vision he had intended this city of almost permanent midnight is still an effective playground for the story to playout in.

While he might not have been the first choice for the role of Eric with O’Barr citing Johnny Depp as his personal choice for the role, while River Phoenix and Christian Slater were also seen as being up for consideration for the part. Brandon Lee though was of course much more of an unknown talent and no doubt better known for being the son of a famous martial artist than his previous films, but watching the film now and seeing how he embodies the role of Eric its hard to see anyone else in the role and even now after numerous sequels it’s still Lee which we see as being the definitive embodiment of the character. What further helps Lee’s portrayal of the character are the moments of humanity he gets throughout rather than just being a vessel for revenge on T-Bird and his gang and while the flashbacks might be a little too smaltzy he does manage with these brief flashes of his former life manage to give us an idea of who he was before he became “The Crow”.

Considering Lee’s background as a martial artist it might seem strange in the fact that he doesn’t in fact get to do much bar a move here or there with the film being much more focused on heroic gunplay. Were it does pay off though is with his body movements and much like the casting of dancers like Michelle Yeoh in Martial Arts movies here it equally pays off as Eric is shown as moving with cat like movements especially as he prowls the city roof tops in search of the gang members on his list. The fact that he is so charismatic and hypnotic in his performance is only an added bonus.

Opening on “Devil’s Night” the night before Halloween were the city gangs cause acts of vandalism and arson throughout the city, which surprisingly was actually a thing in Detroit until the mid 90’s when it was Detroit official's organised “Angel’s Night” were volunteer patrols protect their neighbourhoods from arson attacks. Here though it’s seen as a calling card for the city’s top crime boss Top Dollar (Wincott) a minor character in the comic who here gets a promotion to the film’s big villain which is only added to by the charismatic Michael Wincott which might be his most iconic role to date outside of voicing “Death” in “Darksiders 2” and as such has meant that its always been kind of disappointing to see him frequently not getting to play more of these kinds of roles in the films he’s made since.

Top Dollar is really the perfect sort of villain for this Gothic vision of Detroit as he carries himself with the right amount of theatricality, while his half-sister / lover Myca (Ling) helps to fill in the rules for the crow by adding the subtle element of mysticism without the action getting too fantastical, which really isn’t the easiest thing when your essentially dealing with a supernatural force of vengeance. At the same time the gang responsible for murdering Eric along with his fiancée lead by the Milton quoting arsonist T-Bird (Kelly) are all colourful and unique in their quirks which ultimately become the tools of their demise and really add to this “Sin City” style world which Proyas creates here and which he would carry across to the criminally underrated “Dark City”.

The soundtrack throughout really makes the film a time capsule of it’s release with Proyas compiling a suitably grungy soundtrack featuring the likes of Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against The Machine and the Rollins band. Nine Inch Nails also fittingly provide a cover of the Joy Division track “Dead Souls” tying the film further to the source material. Proyas also features live performances by both Medicine and My Life With The Kill Thrill Cult the later whose club performance soundtracks the boardroom shoot-out. The only real downside to the soundtrack is the use of “Burn” by the Cure which is not down to the track which itself perfectly matches Eric applying his harlequin styled face paint but rather the issues come with the fact its a choppily edited version which really stands out if your familiar with the track. Unsurprisingly the grunge / goth ascetic of the film combined with the soundtrack which still holds up now saw the film being often sold in record stores, which is certainly how I first came across it were it was displayed amongst the VHS copies of “REM: Road Movie” and “Nirvana Live Sold Out”.

A fantastic film which unfortunately broke the mould so that any of the attempts to expand the mythology through different souls either in the films which followed or the numerous spin off comics / books none came close to matching what Brandon Lee gives us with Eric more often than not characters being left feeling like they were in some way attempting to mimic his performance and or character. As such this remains a beautiful curiosity and one which like any actor who dies when they are just getting noticed if this would have been his breakout film or not. Sadly we will never know but it remains a fitting end note to go out on.
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