Film Review: “Atomic Blonde”

Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy and John Goodman
Directed By: David Leitch
Rated: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Focus Features

David Leitch’s first solo directed movie comes after the success of his work on the “John Wick” franchise. While a lot of the “Wick” DNA is on display in many of its action sequences, “Atomic Blonde” suffers from a choppy narrative and lack of character intrigue outside of its two leads.

MI6 agent Lorraine (Theron) is first seen, covered in bruises and burning the memories of a former ally. She walks into a soundproof room to give her recorded recollection of her undercover week leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. She recounts her tale of infiltrating East Berlin, in search of an allusive watch containing information on every agent deployed during the Cold War. Failing to retrieve that token, may result in another 40 years of nuclear arms muscle flex by the U.S. and Soviet Union.

The premise is alluring as Theron’s character radiates macho gusto and calm precision. She speaks in short, biting simplistic sentences and delivers angered quips under her breath. She’s matched by a Berlin ally, David (McAvoy), who’s underground smuggling and cocky smirk covers his secretive intentions. The two, while relatively friendly, aren’t about to become buddies as they spy and record each other. “Atomic Blonde” should be an interesting blend of spy-thriller and action-survival, but is bogged down by its jumbly plot.

There’s plenty of exposition to munch on, but nothing clear or meaningful. There are dozens of characters brought in and out of the woodwork to offer their allegiances and services, but none bring a unique personality or influence to the script. The exquisite opening for “Atomic Blonde” quickly sinks into uninvolving plot progression that feels like an assigned household chore before the film’s real goodies, the action sequences.

Hand-to-hand combat is filmed tightly, but fully in frame to put the viewer right in the middle of fists, kicks, groans and gunshots. They’re some of the film’s most inspired moments, but they’re shoehorned in towards the end and sparse. The sagging middle cuts between uninteresting character interactions and posturing that only pays off in the final 10 minutes of the movie. It makes the entire storyline a lot clearer; however the bad taste of wasted talent meandering aimlessly doesn’t leave your mouth.

This graphic novel adaptation displays an attractive visual flair along with an 80’s best-of soundtrack that keeps your eyes from wandering to far from the screen although there’s no substance beneath its neon portrait. Despite her best efforts, Theron (who also helped produce the movie) can only carry the film so far. Her mix of femme fatale and impenetrable action star is humbled by a late emotional reveal towards the end, that’s more impactful than it should be. Her recent run of action films, like “Mad Max” and “Fate of the Furious” are commendable. But “Atomic Blonde” is more bark than bite.

Film Review: “Split”

Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley
Directed By: M. Night Shyamalan
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 117 minutes
Universal Pictures

Our Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is more commonly known as split personality disorder (SPD) or multiple personality disorder (MPD). The 90’s was full of daytime talk shows, like Oprah, talking to people who allegedly suffered from the disorder. The TV appearances didn’t add much credence to the ongoing debate over the diagnosis and legitimacy of the mental illness in the scientific and psychological communities. Instead it provided housewives with fodder and a free-pass for Hollywood to rejuvenate one of their favorite horror/thriller tropes. Now in 2017, the disease is back in “Split,” but not without a ferociously unique bite.

It’d be unfair to say that Kevin (McAvoy) kidnapped three women from a suburban Philadelphia mall. There are nearly two dozen other distinct personalities in his brain that could have done it or plotted to do it. However, just like his victims, we’ll soon find out that Dennis did it, but not without a little help. The trio of girls will also meet Patricia, Hedwig, Barry, and a handful of Kevin’s other internal personalities. The one victim that “Split” will tend to focus on is Casey (Taylor-Joy). Unlike her fellow captives, she isn’t crying or screaming for help. Casey seems to not only have a grasp on the situation, but an understanding of Kevin.

Another person with a deep understanding of Kevin is Dr. Karen Fletcher (Buckley). She’s talked with Kevin and nearly all of his personalities, but she’s unaware of his latest emotional developments and actions. She doesn’t view Kevin as a freak of nature, but as someone/something more. She believes Kevin’s DID makes him superhuman in nature, with personalities that not only control his mind, but his body, enhancing or crippling some of his physical attributes. That’s why it worries her that there are rumblings of a 24th personality, nicknamed ‘The Beast’. But is it just rumors between Kevin’s personalities or is there truly another personality, which can climb walls and feast on human flesh, lurking inside Kevin’s brain?

There’s more psychological and emotionally scarring at work in “Split” other than the harmful effects of DID. The mental traumas that Kevin and Casey endured previously before the current abduction predicament are revealed and make them more human. The level of empathy for the inherent villain of the movie, Kevin, is nurtured through light-hearted humor, the innocence of some of his personalities, and the one honest moment where the audience finally meets the real Kevin. McAvoy and Taylor-Joy find wordless ways to make their characters sympathetic, simply by letting tears well up in their eyes or flashing various facial tics at the right moment.

“Split” isn’t quite a return to form for Shyamalan, but more of an evolutionary step in his directing and writing. For years he’s been the twist guy that throws in some jump scares for good measure, but he’s dropped a lot of that in “Split,” relying more on atmosphere and the ability of his actors and actresses. But there’s a light joy to his movie, almost understanding that a movie about a man with DID should surely have a few jokes. Although anyone suffering from the disease and anyone without a funny bone in their body from the medical community would say otherwise. That’s not to say “Split” isn’t without its faults.

It runs a little bit too long and sometimes pushes the envelope without any purpose other than to visually or emotionally upset the audience. That may be Shyamalan tinkering with the formula since he is in new territory. “Split” is a restricted thriller, relying more on drawn out suspense and claustrophobic anxiety. “Split” is a slow boiler with enough tension to make you jump at the slightest movement. It also has Shyamalan working with a tragic villain for the first time since “Unbreakable.” If “Split” is Shyamalan’s apology for everything in between “Signs” and “The Visit,” then apology accepted.

Film Review: “X-Men: Apocalypse”

Starring: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Rated: PG 13
Running time: 2 hrs 24 mins
20th Century Fox
Our Score: 3 out of 5 stars

Review by Mike Smith

They’re back! I’d say “the X-men are back” but, thanks to the whims of Hollywood, that statement doesn’t clarify if it’s the old folks or the kids. Or, as Deadpool asked, “McAvoy or Stewart?” It’s McAvoy and the gang here.

Where better for a film series that dabbles with time lines to begin but ancient Egypt. Here we are witness to a ceremony in which an old ruler will receive a mystical transplant from a virile young man. However, a group of traitorous minions (soldiers, etc, not the guys from the Despicable Me films) betray their leader and, after some impressive special effects, he is sealed inside a giant pyramid for all eternity. Or until 1983.

It’s been ten years since the first Mutant was observed and the world still hasn’t accepted them. At his school for “the gifted” Dr. Charles Xavier (McAvoy) is going about his daily duties while over in Poland the formerly underground Magneto (Fassbender) has just been discovered by the local authorities. Two men with similar lives yet very different outlooks. Throw in the mysterious Mystique (Lawrence) and you have a movie. Kind of.

Full of amazing special effects and horrible destruction, X-men: Apocalypse is, presumably, the last film to feature the Future Past characters. And just in time. With a cast that includes three Oscar-nominees it seems like they may have gotten bored with their roles. All do good work here, but there almost seems to be a look of relief in their eyes that they’re done with the spandex for good. That being said, while the leads are serviceable, the supporting cast has fun with their roles. Among the new faces are Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler and a returning Evan Peters as Quicksilver. And kudos to Oscar Isaac, who makes Apocalypse one nasty mo-fo.

The other drawback is the amount of carnage depicted here. As the various mutants battle each other, the toll taken on the planet is amazingly over the top. The destruction here makes the carnage in Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice look like a small dustup. There is also a particularly brutal scene featuring a familiar face making his eighth X-men appearance. The amount of blood spilled was actually quite disturbing and I can’t help but wonder if this scene was included to judge audience reaction as to how far is too far. It’s not Deadpool violent but it’s a little more mature than you might imagine.

X-Men: Apocalypse opens in the UK on May 18th & the US on May 27th