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Blade Runner 2049

13 Oct
Ryan Gosling (right) brings a subdued performance to a dismal future filled with spectacular visuals

Warner Bros. Pictures

Ryan Gosling (right) brings a subdued performance to a dismal future filled with spectacular visuals.

At over two hours, Villeneuve paces the film effectively, smartly holding back and ever ratcheting it up — a feat the director didn’t quite master in his last sci-fi outing Arrival (2016). As you should expect, the action takes place in 2049. Los Angeles is a lot more crowded but still a dark, rain-slicked Gotham with shocks of neon blooming above the drab cityscape. Opening info tells us the Earth’s been beset by overcrowding and famine. There’s nothing green anywhere anymore, so protein farms where mealworm larvae are harvested to feed the masses Soylent Green-esque pap in ramen bowls have popped up. Not to mention there’s the great “Blackout of 2022” where scads of data files and historical records were lost. Gone the way of Lehman Brothers is the old Tyrell Corporation. The manufacturer of “replicants” (biorobotic androids for those unfamiliar with the earlier film or the Phillip K. Dick novel it was based on), are made by Wallace Industries who make the new line “skin jobs” more obedient, yet still physiologically superior to humans, and all imbedded with memories, even though they are self aware they are implants — which seems somewhat illogical and superfluous given the implant process is an arduous one. Continue reading

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American Assassin

20 Sep
American Assassin assembles a crew short on character but high on laptops

Courtesy CBS Films

American Assassin assembles a crew short on character but high on laptops

It’s got to be more than just a tad coincidental that the jingoistic revenge fantasy American Assassin comes out on the tail of the 16th anniversary of one of the most ominous days in our country’s recent history — you can almost see the studio bean counters hovering over the calendar and rubbing their hands together. Bristling bravado and vengeance drive the film based on Vince Flynn’s best-selling novel directed by reliable TV helmer, Michael Cuesta, who showed such promise with his edgy coming-of-age drama L.I.E. (2001). It’s a fairly straight-ahead go that reaches for the technocratic wizardry of Tom Clancy and frenetic energy of Robert Ludlum, but only succeeds in aspiration. The one thing the posse of screenwriters and Cuesta leave out is character development — it’s hard to have a hard-boiled thriller if your hard ass is a cardboard cutout with nothing interesting to say. Running at just under two hours, Assassinfeels longer than it should and you never get that necessary pang of empathy to keep your head in the game.

Atomic Blonde

2 Aug
Charlize Theron is a literal knockout in this fast-paced spy thriller

Action and intrigue abound in this hyper-stylized spy thriller that takes the former quite seriously, boasting some of the best fight choreography on screen in recent years and a car chase worthy of Baby Driver. It’s also violent as hell and makes no apologies as it punches its way through end-of-the-Cold War Berlin — on the eve of the Wall coming down — where a crucial “list” of British intel assets is up for grabs with the KGB, MI6, and other interested middlemen locked in a bloody game of chess to procure it.

The driving fear at British HQ is that if the list falls into Russian hands, it could extend the Cold War by decades, and while that might have factored mightily in Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s 2012 graphic novel that the film’s based on, The Coldest City, it’s nothing more than a McGuffin here and a catalyst for Charlize Theron’s MI6 operative, Lorraine Broughton, to drop from one gonzo battle royale to the next — even a same-sex hookup in a night club bathroom ends at the barrel of a gun.

The film begins inauspiciously enough as a British agent with the list on his person is stalked through the streets of Berlin and taken out smash-bang style. We then catch up with Lorraine 10 days later in London rising naked out of a tub of ice and covered in bruises. The connection between the two events and the framework for the film becomes a jigsaw puzzle of slow reveals fed to us in flashback snippets as Lorraine’s debriefed by her MI6 higher up (Toby Jones, who seems made for the part) and a curmudgeonly CIA handler (John Goodman). Part of the fun here is drinking in Lorraine’s sultry resistance to their inquiry, which bears a certain familiarity to Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell — another can-do blonde under the thumb of authority — in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. Continue reading

Baby Driver

3 Jul

Ansel Elgort stars as the titular wheelman in Edgar Wright's kinetic caper film

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Ansel Elgort stars as the titular wheelman in Edgar Wright’s kinetic caper film

 

Edgar Wright, the man behind the edgy romps Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), comical deconstructions of the zombie and cop buddy genres, as well as the quirky, if not gonzo, adaptation of the graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim — as Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010) — moves into far darker territory with his latest, Baby Driver. The project may have taken root as a result of Wright’s affiliation with Quentin Tarantino on the 2007 B-flick homage, Grindhouse, but the texture isn’t so much Tarantino pulpy as it is the kind of criminal abyss you might find in a Nicolas Winding Refn film if served up with the kitschy kinetic flourishes of an unbridled Luc Besson.

The film, in short, is an adrenaline shot that never lets down. You won’t get a chance to go to the bathroom, but also, because of the breakneck pace, the audience never gets a chance to get caught up emotionally. Wright gets right to it as a squad of robbers (played by Jon Bernthal, John Hamm, and Eliza González) and their driver, the titular Baby (Ansel Elgort) hold up a bank. We don’t go into the bank for the job but hang out in the car with the aptly named wheelman (née, boy), who has the fresh face of a J. Crew model and doesn’t appear old enough to drink, as he listens to tunes on his iPod and plays air guitar. It’s a cute moment for a while, but after a bit, it becomes clear it lacks the energetic meanness of Tom Cruise in his skivvies in Risky Business. Blessedly, the robbers pour out of the bank with the heat hot on their tail, and this is where Wright and the film really kick it up. Baby’s got Mario Andretti skills and Steve McQueen cool and to prove the point, we get an endless phalanx of blue and whites to chase Baby’s hot-red Subaru through the streets of Atlanta. Cars crash, traffic backs up, and there’s nothing Baby won’t try as the net tightens. Wrong way down the freeway, no problem.  Continue reading

The Beguiled

20 Jun

Nicole Kidman turns in a commanding performance as the matron of a Southern estate undone by the arrival of a wounded soldier

Focus Features

Nicole Kidman turns in a commanding performance as the matron of a Southern estate undone by the arrival of a wounded soldier.

 

Given Sofia Coppola’s penchant for strong female characters and repressed sexuality, be it the pairing of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation (2003) or the alluringly perverse texture of The Virgin Suicides (1999), it somewhat makes sense that she set her sights on remaking Civil War Gothic The Beguiled, which starred Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. That 1971 film, based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel The Painted Devil was directed by Don Siegel — who would later that year pair with Eastwood for the maverick cop avenger fantasy Dirty Harry — who mined Eastwood for all his macho virility as a Yank soldier, wounded behind enemy lines and brought to an all-woman seminary to recuperate. Given the prim nature of the house, the sheer presence of male pheromones wreaks havoc on the females’ sensibilities as Eastwood’s Corporal John McBurney proves to be a feral manipulator, having his way with several of the women and even pitting them against one another. Coppola’s version throws a dash of saltpeter on the role here undertaken by Colin Farrell who turns the good corporal into a more humane, less lurid incarnation.

You’d think a softer touch might educe a deeper plumbing of the complex emotions that get brought to the surface by war, strictly imposed Christian values, and a member of the enemy — and the opposite sex — lying in the very next room, but that doesn’t necessarily prove to be the case. Coppola chases authenticity in small, subtle strokes. Siegel took a far different approach, creating something of a psychological thriller, inserting gauzy fantasy sequences and quick intercuts of the lean Eastwood in bed with one of the lasses as horror etches across the faces of the estate’s matrons attuned to the meaning of the giggles and bumps echoing from the far reaches of the house. The film, a box office disappointment that was to prove Eastwood’s range beyond revenge westerns, bordered on near spectacle, but it possessed an edgy energy that never flagged.  Continue reading

T2 Trainspotting

29 Mar
Johnny Lee Miller and Ewan McGregor reprise their roles as Sick Boy and Renton, both a little older but not much wiser

It’s been 21 years since Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor shocked audiences with that creepy dive into a fecal-fleeced toilet in Trainspotting, somehow making being a heroin addict a hilariously biting — albeit tragic — trip along the way. Part gonzo romp, part sad social satire, the stylish weave followed the vein-piercing antics of four Edinburgh junkies, slaves to skag and capable of doing anything to score their next fix — including ripping off their best mates. Not a great lot to throw in with, but a highly entertaining one as the fix-needing squabbles reached the near hyperbolic absurdity of the Three Stooges.

At the end of that 1996 adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s cult novel, one of the four is dead and another runs off with the group’s hard-earned drug money, which leave affairs in a difficult place to pick up, but Boyle and his screenwriter John Hodge, who adapted T1 and has collaborated with Boyle on several other projects, have a real feel for the lads and leverage Welsh’s 2002 follow up, Porno to give the middle-aged blokes a shot at redemption before heading off for the nursing home.

We first catch up with McGregor’s Renton (the guy who stole all the money and — as the film has it — ruined everyone else’s life) now living in the Netherlands and who appears to have made good on his promise at the end of Trainspotting to change, but a small cardiovascular event trips him up (literally) and sends him back to Scotland where he learns his mom has passed. A quick check in with old pal Spud (Ewen Bremner) finds unhappy times for the sweetly pathetic user who’s been unable to shake his monkey. The reunion is cemented by an uproarious eruption of vomit that becomes one of the film’s most lingering images the same way excrement took center stage the last time. Next up on the reunion tour is Sick Boy (Elementary‘s Johnny Lee Miller) who half wants revenge but also needs Renton to help launch a massage parlor that’ll offer happy endings to those in the know. Renton agrees partly out of remorse and old time’s sake but also because he’s drawn to Sick Boy’s girlfriend and house-madam-to-be, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova, who’s sultry, yet knowing presence lights up the screen). Continue reading

Logan

8 Mar
Hugh Jackman grunts and grimaces through his (possibly) final outing as the Wolverine

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Hugh Jackman grunts and grimaces through his (possibly) final outing as the Wolverine

Logan, the third Wolverine spin-off from the X-Men movie empire, which has grown terribly long in the tooth (or is that claw?), does a nice job of righting the ship with this elegiac closing chapter. Part of the reason for the franchise’s demise has been its lack of innovation, but also, and more to the point, the superhero market oversaturation with the Avengers and Justice League entries out there chasing fanboy dollars as well. Besides Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) the best thing about the X-Men series has always been the tortured soul of Logan. Brought so palpably to the screen by Hugh Jackman, his badger-like sneer, tang of feral sexuality, and discernible sense of conflicted rage has always raced around inside the character’s metal-reinforced body.

The good news for fans, and even more so those losing faith, is that Xavier and Logan find themselves back together and without a cavalcade of other mutants and two-dimensional bad guys to weigh them down. It essentially allows the two classically trained thespians to dig in deep and get at the core of their characters’ beaten-down and mercurial personas. As far as acting goes, Logan may just be the grand dame of slumming it. It takes place in the not-too-distant future (2029) and finds our two uber-beings on tough times. Mutants and mutations have been culled way down, and we’re fed the factoid that there hasn’t been a mutant born in a decade or so, making Logan and Xavier perhaps the last of their line.  Continue reading