Atomic Blonde

ABDirector: David Leitch

Screenwriter: Kurt Johnstad

Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella, and Eddie Marsan

Maybe a movie like this could have flown before Netflix, before John Wick, or before Mission: Impossible, but not anymore. Atomic Blonde, based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel series, The Coldest City, plays like a Cold War action movie, but it tries too hard to be anything else.

Set in 1989, at the peak of the Cold War, British agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to investigate the death of a fellow agent in Berlin. Cue all the tropes you associate with this genre: mistaken identity, betrayal, secret list of undercover operatives, and so on and so forth. It even does the very thing this clip from The Other Guys is making fun of; it starts at the end, then goes to the beginning, periodically returning to the end, giving various characters’ perspectives. Ridiculous.

The other characters? Hardly worth mentioning, but Broughton is teamed up with another agent named David Percival (James McAvoy) who may or may not be up to something. She also encounters a rookie French agent named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), who Broughton finds much more amusing than Percival.

Does it matter that this movie paints by numbers? It certainly doesn’t have to matter. Movies like Mission: Impossible and John Wick have very little going on upstairs, but what they do have is unrelenting spectacular action sequences! Atomic Blonde has one of those, and while it may be one of the best examples of an action spectacle in a long, long time, it doesn’t do enough to hold the other 90 minutes of the movie afloat.

Atomic Blonde the film wisely immerses us in the music of the times. The best part about Atomic Blonde is its selection and execution of the New Wave/Punk music of the time. Like Baby Driver, none of this music is original; the art is not in the music but rather the selections, arrangement, and placement. I have an even deeper appreciation of David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” now.

So what do we have here? Do we have the “female James Bond,” as some publicized this film to be? No. We have middle of the road espionage, set in a provocative time period with good music and one great action scene. That’s just enough to recommend it, but not without the caveat that it comes with a high risk of disappointment. C+

Atomic Blonde is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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X-Men: Apocalypse

Xmen

Director: Bryan Singer

Screenwriter: Simon Kinberg

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac, and Sophie Turner

For 16 years, Bryan Singer has managed the fairly difficult task of directing multiple entries within a franchise and having each one be superior to its predecessor.  His first three X-Men films (X-Men, X2, and X-Men: Days of Future Past) were each a step forward in terms of greatness.  While that streak does end with this year’s X-Men: Apocalypse, it is only because Days of Future Past was SO good!  X-Men: Apocalypse is a very good X-Men film and one that does not tarnish Singer’s legacy one bit.

Picking up the pieces of the shattered timeline left in the wake of Days of Future Past, Apocalypse opens in the early 1980s and finds Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) finally realizing his vision of a school for “Gifted” youngsters. Meanwhile, Eric “Magneto” Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), determined to disappear into anonymity, has taken a blue collar job in a steel mill and settled down off the grid with his wife Magda (Carolina Bartczak) and daughter Nina (T.J. McGibbon).  Unfortunately for both of them, an ancient mutant who goes by the name Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is accidentally unearthed from the rubble of his fallen pyramid by an old friend from X-Men: First Class, Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne).  Disgusted by the power of the “weak” in the modern world, Apocalypse decides to gather his “four horsemen” and duly wipe the slate clean of all undeserving people of Earth.

Whenever total annihilation of the human race is on the line, the stakes are admittedly high. However, the complex and clever time-rift that drove the action in Days of Future Past leaves the Apocalypse conflict feeling a little generic in comparison.  Consequently, Isaac’s performance as the main villain is also slightly underwhelming.  That being said, there is not much more to find fault with in this film.  Once again, the “First Class” cast fills the screen with charisma at every turn. Magneto specifically is given some powerful and intense developments that impact the story and the future of the franchise. In fact, all of the returning characters are used well. One of the only disappointments I had with Days of Future Past was that the relationship between Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) that was so ripe in X-Men: First Class was so utterly downplayed in Days of Future PastApocalypse rights that wrong by giving Mystique a more prevalent and endurable role and reuniting her with the rest of the team in a more meaningful way.  That said, Singer wisely does not fall victim to the temptation to overplay the fact that he has the number one actress in the world in his film by pivoting too much on Lawrence.  Instead he focuses more on the emerging powers of young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and her relationship with Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan).  The introduction to these characters in the new timeline has been hotly anticipated and the film does a nice job of showcasing these characters and whetting our appetite for how their story will play out this time.

On the other hand, Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg do struggle a little under the weight of including and introducing so many other new characters.  I recently stated that Captain America: Civil War is the first Marvel film to truly accomplish the goal of introducing new characters flawlessly.  Unfortunately, X-Men: Apocalypse falls short of that accomplishment.  Notable examples include Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-Mcphee), young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Angel (Ben Hardy) all of whom remind us of similar character messes from films like Spiderman 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand.  The most glaringly troubling new character inclusion, however is Olivia Munn as Psylocke.  Munn has made a career as the quote/unquote “Booth Babe,” who stands around posing at comic-cons and looking pretty.  Ironically, her acting roles have been relatively far-removed from the geek culture that made her famous and at times she’s shown some real talent.  With X-Men: Apocalypse, she had her chance to reunite with comic

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Olivia Munn as Psylocke in X-Men: Apocalypse. Image from comingsoon.net

book culture and demonstrate some strength in that arena, but instead her character is relegated to appearances so overtly gratuitous that the audience is taken out of the movie so they can laugh at her impracticable hip-popping, silent stances alongside her team of mutant villains.  If you need more proof, read this article about how she needed lube to squeeze into her costume. The character is meant to be sexy, no doubt, but this is ridiculous.  Next time, give her a line or two of dialogue as well.

X-Men: Apocalypse does a very good job of furthering the X-Men storyline with style and excitement.  The film does struggle with some elements of execution, but none of them take too much away from its enjoyment factor. B+      

X-Men Apocalypse is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 14 minutes.  Stay tuned through the credits for another one of those characteristic Marvel post-credit stingers.  It’s a pretty deep reference though, so if you’re not a comic book nerd, you may need some assistance to make sense of it.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

ImageAfter over a decade away from the X-Men, director Bryan Singer finally returns to the franchise that made him superbly famous. Singer helmed the first X-Men film in 2000 and its even more enjoyable sequel X2 in 2003 but then stepped down. The X-Men series would expand with four more films in Singer’s absence, the best of them Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class in 2011 and the worst of them Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009. The point being that while the X-Men films have persevered in Singer’s absence, they certainly have had their ups and downs. Nonetheless, Singer’s entries have each miraculously improved on its predecessor. While I still feel X-Men: First Class is the strongest X-Men film overall, Singer’s third entry X-Men: Days of Future Past is certainly his finest of the bunch and a real crowd-pleaser at that!

At first glance, the plot of X-Men: Days of Future Past sounds like it would be fraught with confusion and dramatic subtext, but it is actually just Back to the Future with mutants. The present day X-Men are living in a world where man has defeated the mutant. With the creation of Dr. Bolivar Trask’s (Peter Dinklage) Sentinels, mutants are being hunted and executed to the point of extinction. A small army of original X-Men, lead by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) have so far eluded the Sentinels, but time is running out. A final Hail Mary play involves using the telekinetic power of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to send the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 where he can hopefully sway the younger X-Men to stop the series of past events that allow Trask and his Sentinels to come to power. Great Scott!

Singer is thus tasked with the challenging undertaking of balancing the present day cast of original X-Men with that of their engaging and charming First Class counterparts. Fortunately, he is up for the challenge and succeeds by crafting a film that does not look for balance but puts the attention firmly on the new and absurdly talented First Class. Many fans will likely balk at the frame story that leaves Stewart, McKellen, and company as book ends of an otherwise straight-forward sequel to X-Men: First Class, but I feel this is precisely the direction to take these films and I am thrilled that the rest of the original cast seems to feel this way as well. Michael Fassbender in particular brings a great deal of complexity to the character of Magneto and truly commands the audience’s attention the way Jackman’s Wolverine used to in the original films. Jackman is still fantastic as Wolverine and has somehow not worn out his welcome at all. His character feels like the appropriate choice for anchoring the film’s point of view, and Jackman’s performance is nuanced enough to be tough yet endearing.  This is most evident in his scenes with James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier; these two fall into stride in an almost Butch and Sundance kind of way.

There is a lot of star power in this film; I mean, I haven’t even addressed Jennifer Lawrence yet! However, there are also a host of new mutants introduced in this film. This inundation of countless new characters was the tipping point for the third film, X-Men: The Last Stand. Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth, as they say. Yet, Singer somehow manages this feat effortlessly, seemingly poking fun at the previous idiom by setting one of the film’s most enjoyable scenes starring a new character literally in a kitchen with way too many people in it!

Speaking of too many people, Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as Mystique and Nicholas Hoult is back as Beast. These two blue beauties were front and center in X-Men: First Class but seem far less utilized in this film, even though Mystique is pivotal to the film’s plot. This is unfortunate since their chemistry and vivacity were so fun in the previous film.

X-Men: Days of Future Past does exactly what Fox, Marvel, and fans hoped it would. It revitalized the franchise, it spun the storyline in a new and vibrant direction, and it made lots of money. I am eager to see where Singer takes us next in X-Men: Apocalypse. A-

X-Men: Days of Future Past is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 11 minutes. As always, stay through the credits for a brief but vital scene at what’s next for the X-Men.