Oh, What A Girl Can Do!

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Nostalgia comes in great waves today, with all manner of films revisiting classic themes — from Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 to War for the Planet of the Apes, Hollywood is, more accurately, in a nostalgic monsoon, but in the case of this week’s new release, Atomic Blonde, we have said nostalgia tailored for an R-rated audience. This movie belongs to the 80’s kids and their parents, but with the modern sensibility of a commanding female lead who owns the show.

Based on the comic book The Coldest City, the story is set in November 1989, days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) plays MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton, a super-spy at the top of her line, sent on an extraction mission to East Berlin. With the help of ridiculously rogue agent David Percival (James McAvoy, Split), she must locate a stolen list of active operatives in the Secret Service, or it’s game over for the free world.

Let’s not mince words — this film is an audio/visual feast, showing wanton violence with an almost poetic look to it, and yet the action is surprisingly grounded, given director David Leitch’s background with the John Wick movies. The sound is not as invasive as I thought it would be — while bullets fly above your head, you can still hear the dialogue clearly, all set to a litany of 80’s pop songs for much of its soundtrack. All that being said, the script isn’t much to write home about — too many curveballs are thrown into the works; even the viewer begins to doubt what is true or not. There are at least three twist endings, one of which you see coming miles away, so that’s no good.

Despite the handicap of the script, the acting is brilliant — If you expected hammy acting amidst a violent script, you’ll be proven wrong, but anyone expecting a cold-blooded feminist blockbuster tailored for the “reSister” of today will get something wholly other — Theron plays Lorraine more as a femme Timothy Dalton-era James Bond — one who would snap your neck like a twig for Queen and Country, all while wearing a coy smile on her face. She owns the screen on which the movie plays, but in any lesser situation, the requisite male lead would be mere eye candy. Thankfully, such is not the case here — co-star McAvoy brings the perturbing filth one usually sees in the movies he makes across the pond to a mass-market American release, and he owns his character with disgusting pleasure. Notable supporting cast members include John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), bringing a shot of humor into the film as a bumbling CIA agent, James Faulkner (Downton Abbey) as C, Lorraine’s superior and head of MI6, and Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) in a role that, if I told you, would spoil the movie.

Atomic Blonde is not very good, but it’s no sin to see it — it’s a fun film that, while it won’t quite scratch the itch of those begging for a female 007, is a symphonic example of an action film, embodying the best of Guy Hamilton and Robert Rodriguez, set to the tunes of liberation. That is what we came to see, is it not?

Rating: 3/5

Perfect, A Pure Paragon

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If you are as much of a Disney fan as I (few are), then the thought of a live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast gave you cause to salivate — one that kept the songs and its composer, eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken! I was sold, but as the days to release got closer, I found myself getting more and more cautious — suppose the end result sucked, a la Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables? I am proud and thankful to say that this adaptation, directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), is nothing short of brilliant. I write this review assuming that you are familiar with the base of the story (and you had better be!), and as such, spoilers follow.

One thing viewers of the 1993 Broadway show may not be aware of is that none of the songs written for said show carry over into this film, but fear not, as Menken and lyricist Sir Tim Rice write new songs that both make up for the missing ones and craft a new experience for the viewers of the show. Speaking of the songs, the movie is filled with brilliant performances, beginning with the Harry Potter franchise’s Emma Watson, who can sing, rest assured, and in spite of her promoted desire to modernize Belle, I was, as a feminist, glad to have seen her more resolute than openly militant — we’re bordering on the political, but I’m super happy this wasn’t rewritten as “Steinem and the Beast.” Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) makes a brilliant Beast, with one hell of a set of pipes — his signature number, “Evermore,” brought tears to my eyes, but it’s Luke Evans (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) who brings his latent background in musical theatre to the forefront and aces the role of Gaston with a great voice and the right levels of smarm, condescension and cruelty — just the right type of villain! Acting as his toady is Josh Gad (Back To You) as LeFou, who gets a larger story arc in this version, which fleshes him out without totally changing him. Kevin Kline (Silverado), as Belle’s father Maurice, brings a befuddled persona to the character, reminiscent of Buster Keaton in Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with an equally kind nature requisite of the character. He doesn’t get much of a song — less than two minutes — but his necessity isn’t in his singing, and you’ll find out when you see this.

The servile characters of the castle just about steal the show, with Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge!) and Ian McKellen (Cold Comfort Farm) leading the pack as Lumiere and Cogsworth, respectively. With great singing voices (although Sir Ian doesn’t get to show his much), they make “Be Our Guest” a showstopper even better than the original (there’s even a visual nod to Esther Williams’ swim ballet pictures!)! Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) is adorable and kindly as Mrs. Potts, with a more knowledgeable nature than in the animated film, and alongside her is relative newcomer Nathan Mack as Chip, who is freakin’ adorkable. Here’s to your long career, boy!

Underplayed, but still appreciated, are Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Concussion) as Plumette, the featherduster and Lumiere’s flame (…groan…), Audra MacDonald (A Raisin in the Sun) as Madame de Garderobe, a soprano-cum-wardrobe, and Stanley Tucci (The Whole Shebang) as new character Maestro Cadenza, a court composer turned harpsichord. They each get their moment to shine, to be sure, but a little more couldn’t hurt. Still, not a big enough gripe to warrant a lesser grade.

Again, those fearing too much modernization in this edition need not worry — what wasn’t broke (or baroque) in the 1991 classic mercifully remains unfixed in this version. Sure, there’s the much-publicized “gay-making” of LeFou, but if it wasn’t publicized, I guarantee nobody would have even suspected it. It’s mercurial, and those of a discriminatory position needn’t fear their children’s safety — you never needed to anyway. Other plot points that warranted expansion are done brilliantly so, from the whereabouts of Belle’s mother and what happened to the Enchantress, and that speaks volumes of the talents of writers Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being A Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War), both writers I didn’t care much for prior to this, and director Bill Condon, who may have directed both parts of the Twilight saga closer, Breaking Dawn, but aside from giving him experience in visual effects work, there’s nothing resembling those two duds in this film.

Bravo to all involved in this adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, who have created something as memorable as the musical and film that preceded it. It’s a pity it wasn’t released in time for last Oscar season, but it was better they take care of the film and not rush a single thread. I will happily see it again in IMAX 3D, and I urge all readers of this to see it too!

Rating: 5/5(?!)

I Can See Clearly Now

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Oh Alice, dear, where have you been?

I rarely go see a sequel to a film I hated, let alone one I hated on a cellular level, but Alice Through The Looking Glass is a horse of a different color in that it greatly improves on the previous film and still keeps much of the same creative team intact.

Continuing where the 2010 pseudo-remake left off, Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska, Crimsom Peak), now Captain of her late father’s trading vessel, the Wonder, has returned to London at the turn of the century from a three-year voyage across China and finds her benefactor dead (and his funding in the hands of her ex-fiancee), her home and her ship under the threat of repossession and her mother less proud of her than before. All seems hopeless before the reappearance of Absolem (Alan Rickman, Galaxy Quest) — a butterfly friend of hers from Wonderland, who leads her through the proverbial looking glass back into the world of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, Black Mass), who is not at all well. To help him, she must gain the assistance of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen, The Brothers Grimsby) himself and, together with the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, Interstellar) and her subjects, face her old nemesis, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech) once again.

Like most films on the Disney release slate, I had been following Looking Glass since it was announced, but it really took my eye when the studio announced that James Bobin, director of 2011’s The Muppets was signed to direct — if anyone could save the sequel, it would be the man who, temporarily, revived Jim Henson’s brainchildren. Sure enough, he does, making the jump from puppets to CG quite nicely, even if some visual effects (i.e.: the destruction of Time’s castle) are milked for amazement a bit too much. The performances are sound, with Depp and Hathaway slipping effortlessly back into their respective roles, but the true stars of the film are Wasikowsa’s Alice and Lindsay Duncan as Helen Kingsleigh, Alice’s mother. Having found her voice in the previous film, Alice has found her place as a strong woman, completely disregarding the norms of the year she lives in, and Wasikowska plays that brilliantly (perhaps having played a contrary sort in Crimson Peak helped!), while Duncan’s Helen, no longer in mourning for her husband, seems to gradually learn from her daughter’s adventurous spirit and is now a character worth rooting for!

For what little time the late, beloved Alan Rickman has in the film, it is still nice to hear his dulcet tones one last time in a new release. Bonham Carter seems bored with the Red Queen, and, forgive me if this is uncouth, peeved to be working alongside her ex-husband again, even with him as producer? Cohen, however, brings to this his finest feature film role in nearly a decade — his protrayal of the mysterious Time parts Ludwig Von Drake and John Cleese circa Fawlty Towers. He’s worth the price of admission alone! Also, keep an eye out for small roles portrayed by Rhys Ifans (Anonymous), Richard Armitage (The Hobbit Trilogy), Andrew Scott (Spectre) and Ed Speelers (Downton Abbey). It’s a real treat to see them, even for a moment!

The script, once again written by Linda Woolverton, is much more coherent, but does seem to borrow from other fairy-tale properties — the plot point of the Hatter dying due to Alice not believing him reminded me all too much of Peter Pan (I distincly remember she even says to Hatter, ‘I’ll always believe in you.’ Hmm.). Also, the aforementioned mother-daughter relationship is a little reminiscent of Woolverton’s own Maleficent, which I loved, but pangs of fear of familiarity ran through my mind for a bit. These fears were more or less unfounded, but the ending did seem a bit similar in tone. Nevertheless, the film is greatly satisfying and empowering without being suffocating. While the film’s dismal box-office gross so far probably won’t grant it a sequel, it’s good enough where it ends here.

I was surprisingly satisfied with Alice Through The Looking Glass, leaving the theater feeling warm and fuzzy inside, and if you’re one of the many who saw the first film, please do yourself a favor and see this one, even if you’re not that interested — it’s very much worth it!

 

Rating: 3.5/5