Movie Review – “Atomic Blonde” (2017)

I do not think most spy movies are very effective forms of storytelling. They are, at best, vehicles for well-shot and choreographed action sequences, normally in close-quarters or in chase sequences, but most of the time fail at telling an emotionally impactful narrative. This mostly comes back to our lead character, who is more often than not stoic and immune to the events that are happening around him and comes across as emotionally detatched or uncaring about the world around them.

He’ll save the world and look cool while doing it, but if he doesn’t give a damn about anything then why should we care about what he does?

That’s not to say all spy movies are terrible, since films like “Skyfall” and “Goldfinger” are wonderful, while others like Paul Feig’s “Spy” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” flipped the spy genre on its head and played it mostly for laughs. But when I watch most spy movies, by the time we reach the end of the second act and everything starts to get tense, I often find myself uninterested in what had come before and what is about to come. I will often remember the action sequences, but find it hard to remember how or why these bits of drama happened in the first place.

David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde” is a perfect example of why I don’t care for the spy genre. While the film has stunning visuals and great use of color, which is very reminiscent of Leitch’s previous film “John Wick,” and some brutal action sequences, the story and characters leave a lot to be desired and ultimately made the experience feel a bit hollow.

Set in 1989 on the eve of the Berlin Wall collapsing, MI6 agent James Gasciogne is killed by KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin for a wristwatch that contains a piece of microfilm that has the names and activity of every active KGB agent in the field, which Yuri plans to sell on the black market to the highest bidder. MI6 sends in their top operative, agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), to find the watch and kill the agent that ousted Gasciogne, known as Agent Satchel. Lorraine also meets with agent David Percival (James McAvoy) who has gone native, but maybe her only way of getting around Berlin.

 

 

I’ll give “Atomic Blonde” this much – it perfectly captures the feel of the 1980s. From the neon clothing, to the rock music, to the rampant experimental drugs, this film screams of the 80s. This film eats grittiness for breakfast and neon lights for dinner. There’s a certain zeitgeist to every decade and “Atomic Blonde” nails what it fells like to live during the 1980s, capped off by a boisterous soundtrack.

The action sequences in “Atomic Blonde” are quite different from what I expected. There are some longer fight sequences that use long takes, and many of them show fatigue and exhaustion in our characters, like they’re always fighting with everything they’ve got. I don’t remember many fight scenes where the hero gets tired, but this was a nice change of pace. Watching Charlize Theron trying to catch her breath in the middle of a fight was refreshing and honest.

 

 

However, the end result “Atomic Blonde” wants to go for is unsatisfying. This is because Lorraine feels so detached and emotionless from her job. She has the same emotion taking someone’s life that you or I would have from going to grocery store to get milk. This works for first two-thirds of the film when she is putting all the pieces together, but once she thinks everything is solved and has to act upon it is when the film starts to fall apart.

This could be less of a problem with “Atomic Blonde” and more of a problem with the narrative style of the spy genre in general. This film could just be following the tropes of James Bond movies by having a protagonist that only cares about finishing the mission. But in any case, this is a trope I wish to see less of.

 

 

Overall, “Atomic Blonde” is fun at points, but uninterested at others. The film has a unique feel when it comes to atmosphere and fighting style, with some great cinematography during the action. But the story is dull and the characters are even more bland. If you’re going to watch “Atomic Blonde,” I would say take its style over substance.

Final Grade: C

 

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Movie Review – “Unfriended” (2015) – The Internet Fights Back

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One of the often unnoticed aspects of horror is that the roles of our “heroes” are typically played by unknown or new actors. People that the audience has never heard of before, and thus have no stigma or personality attached to the actor’s name.

How would you feel if the role of Norman Bates in “Psycho” was played by Gregory Peck or Robert Mitchum, instead of Anthony Perkins? Both Peck and Mitchum are spectacularly captivating actors, but we probably wouldn’t be able to get roles like Atticus Finch out of our mind to believe what Norman Bates does.

Horror is often at its best when the audience is just as much in the dark as the lead characters are. When the actors are people that we don’t know, they stop being actors and become ordinary people stuck in a horrific incident that may cost them their lives – lives that we are now invested in.

This is one of the strengths of “Unfriended,” one of the most unusual horror movies in a long time. While I recently praised “It Follows” for the creative setup and use of its monster, “Unfriended” takes the creativity up a notch by not only having the entire film shot from the perspective of a teenage girl’s computer screen, but also the ever-present monster and the mystery behind its powers.

When Blaire sits down for a skype call with her friends one night, the group ends up getting a mysterious caller that won’t leave the chat and finds a way back in every time they retry the call. Soon after, new photos and conversations surface from Laura Barns Facebook page, who killed herself one year ago after a video of her getting drunk and passing out went viral. As the conversation progresses, Blaire’s friends begin to think that the mystery caller might be Laura who has come back to get her revenge.

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The strangeous yet most alluring part of “Unfriended” is how the film is able make each of these characters sympathetic and relatable, yet so satisfying when something terrible happens to each of them. For the majority of the film, we are lead to believe that everyone in the group did nothing to hurt Laura and that it was the internet’s fault. But all too soon, the truth, cover ups and fake Facebook accounts show themselves and we learn exactly what of each of them did that made this unknown presence so angry.

There are points where I wanted to hug each of these characters and tell them it’ll be alright, and then others where I wanted to slap them. I understand where they’re coming from, but they deserve what happens to them.

As for the monster itself, it is hard to pin down exactly what it is. There is never a physical manifestation of it, due to the way “Unfriended” is filmed, but the creäture is able to hack any computer and take over dead people’s accounts. It is never explained if this cyber threat is Laura or some force pretending to be her, but one point is made clear – Whatever it is, this monster knows each of the main characters darkest secret and intends to expose them to the internet.

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While people praise the internet for the ability to communicate with the world like never before, we don’t often consider the repercussions of sharing everything we say or do with the world-wide web. If we mess up in the real world, it can be forgotten and move on from it. But on the internet, that video, tweet or Facebook post will last forever. Everyone you know and care about will see it and no matter how hard you try, that is now apart of your life open to ridicule and scorn from across the information superhighway.

So what if the internet knew about the evil things that some people had done, leading to the death of someone, and wanted to get even with these teenagers who didn’t think they were doing anything wrong? Just another possibility to the monster behind “Unfriended” that makes it all the more terrifying.

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Overall, “Unfriended” is a welcomed horror film that feels reflective of today’s social media-based society and takes full advantage of the set-up and framing device. The mystery of how the electronic creäture works keeps the film from getting stale and the characters supply a never-ending emotional roller coaster. It does drag at a couple of points, but the film more than makes up for it with all the style behind the use of computers as exposition and scares.

Final Grade: B+