(On Cable TV, April 2018) We’re at the tail end of eighties nostalgia now, but I won’t complain if it brings us as finely crafted action movies as Atomic Blonde. Set against the inevitable fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this is a deliciously retro piece of work that nonetheless embodies 2010s attitude and filmmaking prowess, with Charlize Theron once again burnishing solid action credentials as an English spy trying to stabilize a dangerous situation where no one can be trusted. She is intensely credible as a capable heroine, holding up against waves of assailants: Atomic Blonde’s centrepiece sequence is an impossibly long sequence in which she fights her way out of a building against countless assailants, a virtuoso demonstration of what’s now possible with personal trainers, audacious directors, seamless CGI and clever techniques. This sequence is made even better by how it leaves visible marks and bruises on the heroine, dramatically reinforcing the realism of the sequence even in a generally fantastic film. (David Leitch directs, solidifying his resume after John Wick.) Other actors also impress, from an increasingly credible James McAvoy as an action star, to Sofia Boutella playing a very unusual “soft” role going against her established screen persona. (We’re really sorry to see her go.) John Goodman and Toby Jones help complete the triple-crossing framing device that fully plays out Cold War mythology tropes. A terrific new wave soundtrack helps complete the package, adding much to the film for those who even dimly remember the late eighties. Aside from its intrinsic qualities, Atomic Blonde is also a further salvo in how the eighties are being digested into mythology, ready to be re-used as second-generation pop-culture elements. Even if you don’t care about that, Atomic Blonde is a solid action movie fit to make any cinephile giggle with joy at how well it works.
(Video On-Demand, July 2017) Can filmmakers have a second wind? It’s too early to tell for M. Night Shyamalan, but after the triple-barreled nadir of The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth (each of which should have been career-destroying for anyone else), he appears to be on the rebound. I don’t think much of The Visit, but it was a step up, and with Split he’s back to making good movies again. Running wild with the controversial concept of multiple personality disorder (even acknowledging the controversy), Split posits an antagonist with 23 personalities, kidnapping three girls even as a terrifying 24th personality threatens to emerge. James McAvoy has the good fortune of playing the lead character, slipping in and out of various roles and even faking some self-impersonations as the personalities try to pass off for each other. It’s a great performance from an actor who seems to get better and better every year. Anya Taylor-Joy is also very good as the smartest of the three kidnapped girls. Shyamalan himself seems back in form both as a writer and as a director—while neither are as good as in the films that made him famous, Split is an engaging thriller that edges closer and closer to supernatural horror as it goes on. The transition isn’t frustrating, and the ending clearly indicates that we’ve been set up for a follow-up or two. Split isn’t quite a perfect film (it spins its wheels quite a bit at first, goes a bit too dark at times and runs a bit too long) but it’s quite an improvement for Shyamalan, who may be taken off my blacklist after all.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) I have always been cautiously positive about the X-Men film series, largely because (especially at first, when there weren’t that many good comic-book movies around) it has always put themes and characters front-and-centre, thus earning extra respectability as comic-book movies with something deeper to say. Lately, the shift to historical periods with First Class was good for style, but with Apocalypse, it looks as if the X-Men series has reached a point of diminishing returns. The themes of alienation and discrimination are more than well-worn by now, and it seems as if the series struggles to find anything more to say about it. It certainly doesn’t help that the film goes back to a hackneyed villain-wants-to-destroy-everything premise: This is exactly the kind of city-destroying stuff that has been done ad nauseam in other superhero movies, and the generic antagonist (a complete waste of Oscar Isaac’s talents) doesn’t help. Other issues annoy: the teenage angst of the X-Men is getting old, and so is the fan service to trying to cram as many characters as possible, especially Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Jennifer Lawrence’s increasingly useless Mystique. There are, to be fair, a few lovely sequences here—the Quicksilver sequence is, just as the preceding film, a joy to watch. Olivia Munn looks good despite being in a handful of scenes. It’s hard to dislike James MacEvoy as Charles Xavier or Nicholas Hoult as Beast. But Apocalypse seems far more generic than its predecessor, and suffers even more from a close comparison to Deadpool’s self-aware sarcastic exuberance. The period setting isn’t used effectively, and the film has some lengthy scenes that play out like all similar scenes in other similar movies. Even under director Bryan Singer’s helm, the result is flat, dull, mediocre and a dead end as far as the series is concerned. The next instalment (because we know there will be another instalment) better shake things up, otherwise it’s going to tailspin into the kind of movies that viewers won’t bother to see.
(Video on Demand, March 2016) I wasn’t expecting much from this film, even well into its first act. Part of it was misapprehension: For some reason, I was convinced that Victor Frankenstein was another attempt to reboot a Frankenstein franchise along the lines of the underwhelming I, Frankenstein. But this film turns out to be another kind of creature. Focusing on Igor (Daniel Radcliffe, playing a genius-level autodidact doctor escaping the circus in order to be Doctor Frankenstein’s protégé) and his relationship with his mad-genius benefactor Frankenstein, this is a Victorian fantasy with an occasionally playful intent, going over a familiar story with some wit—at least until a generic third act. Victor Frankenstein will play best with those who are a bit tired of the usual take on Frankenstein: It clearly focuses on the doctor and his apprentice, and by the time the monster comes to life, everyone realizes how big a mistake this is. The production design of the movie is probably what shines most: It’s wonderful and Victorian and wouldn’t take much to veer into steampunk. Against that backdrop, Radcliffe turn in a likable performance, while James McAvoy is almost fearsome as the driven Dr. Frankenstein. Clearly patterned on other contemporary retellings such as the Sherlock Holmes revivals, Victor Frankenstein works best when it moves fast, plays with its own ideas and leaves enough breathing space to its two lead actors. (It could have done with less knee-jerk “resurrection is evil!” material, though, given how familiar that sounds.) It significantly falters during its more conventional third act, as we converge on the usual blasts of lightning, evil monster, confrontation above a big hole and other such familiar elements of modern SF&F climax sequences. Oh well; the theorem of convergent premises strikes again. In the meantime, Victor Frankenstein makes for a decent take on the classic story, and it certainly works better than I, Frankenstein.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) As it turns out, there is a thinner line than I thought between cool and ridiculous. This can be best shown using Welcome to the Punch, a British crime thriller that tries so hard to look cool that it eventually become laughable despite itself. Much of the film isn’t too bad, though: The cinematography of the film (finding surprising beauty in the blue-hued glass buildings in night-time London) is stylish and striking, and James McAvoy has seldom looked more self-assured as a once-wounded police officer forced to ally with a career criminal (Mark Strong, also good) in order to take down a bigger operation. Director Eran Creevy scores a few great sequences, including a grabbing opening sequence, and a mid-movie slow-motion living-room confrontation. Unfortunately, the wheels start coming off mid-way through as a sympathetic character is badly killed (maybe even excessively killed, if it’s possible to overstate it), and the film then incongruously ramps up the cool factor until it exceed maximum pretentiousness levels shortly before the night-set loading docks ending sequence. By the time the protagonist (again) rises up (again) in slow-motion with (again) a shotgun, it’s hard not to laugh at the film’s expense. Which is too bad, because McAvoy and Strong are pretty darn cool when they don’t have to overplay their moments, and the direction has its moments before falling off the cliff of obnoxiousness. It’s hard to avoid thinking that with a slightly defter touch, Welcome to the Punch could have been much better.
(On Cable TV, June 2014) The moment any modern thriller brings in hypnosis as a plot device, it’s time to sit down and expect a tortured maze of plot twists. Trance is no exception: if the title wasn’t enough, it’s clear that we’re in for a warped psychological thriller as soon as our lead character is coerced into seeing a hypnotherapist in order to recall what he has done with a precious stolen painting. At that point, forget about notions of protagonist, antagonist, aggressor or victim, because the script seems determined to twist everything in sight. In the apt hands of director Danny Boyle, this turns into a visually trippy wringer in which nothing is as it seems. As you can expect, this is as far away from a comforting experience as can be, and Trance becomes a film best appreciated by jaded thriller fans who don’t mind massive incoherencies as long as the usual conventions are upended. In this film, the human mind can be infinitely re-programmed, identities shed at the touch of a voice and grudges extended over years of dormancy. It’s strictly genre fare (although there is a good monologue about the nature of ourselves as the sum of our memories), executed professionally and wrapped up with an unsettling bow. As the conflicted lead character, James McAvoy continues to become more and more interesting as an actor. Meanwhile, though, Rosario Dawson eventually steals the entire show with a showy role, while Vincent Cassel unexpectedly comes to play against type by the end of the film. Trance isn’t particularly pleasant, but it holds attention until the end… which isn’t too bad for a heist thriller.
(In theaters, June 2011) I wasn’t expecting anything after the underwhelming Wolverine, but this X-Men: First Class is a return to the strengths of the original trilogy: Some thematic heft, good acting performances, clever sequences and an sense of cool that doesn’t fall into self-indulgence. Even as a prequel, it works just fine: There’s some dramatic irony at the way the characters come together and split apart, and the script is wildly successful at weaving the October Missile Crisis in the fabric of the plot. James McAvoy may be good as Charles Xavier, but it’s Michael Fassbender who steals the show as Magneto, with plenty of good supporting roles for people such as Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence and Oliver Platt. (Meanwhile, January Jones -for all she brings to the film by parading around in white thigh-highs and gogo boots- seems unacceptably stiff). The initial X-Men trilogy worked well in large part due to its thematic ambitions about bigotry, normalcy and self-acceptance; if First Class doesn’t do much than rehash the same issues from “didn’t ask, didn’t tell” to “mutant and proud”, it’s still far more interesting than other recent meaningless comic-book films like Thor. The idea to set the film in the early sixties has refreshing stylistic implications (despite the anachronism of late-sixties fashion) that carry through to the Saul-Bass-tinged closing credit sequence. Director Matthew Vaughn manages to helm a surprisingly talky film with the right mixture of action and character moments, while giving some energy to the whole. X-Men: First Class may be a small victory for style over rehashed substance, but even in repeating itself it seems quite a bit better than the norm –and in presenting itself attractively, it makes itself difficult to criticize. Suffice to say that it’s an enjoyable film, and even one that may get viewers to watch the original trilogy again –something that seemed improbable after Wolverine.