CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the films of the moment
TIME TO UPDATE THOSE FILM OF THE YEAR LISTS thanks to David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, while Charlize Theron stylishly kicks some ass and Netflix continues to do what it does ever so well in this week’s FilmSpace.
Atomic Blonde - ★★★☆☆
The past is having a real time of it. Nazis are in the news, and the 1980s are cool again. Guardians of the Galaxy made us look back fondly, and Stranger Things was a whirlwind of nostalgia for a time many of us never even experienced.
Drenched in neon and the brouhaha of the Berlin Wall coming down, Atomic Blonde swaps modern conflicts for the Cold War. 99 Red Balloons plays in the background, soundtracking some ultraviolence as everyone searches for a list of double agents, its contents so damning it could continue the Cold War for another 40 years.
Despite the flashy trailers with Charlize Theron beating the hell out of nameless henchmen, Atomic Blonde is only half that film. The other half is a twisty turny spy thriller, playing with the paranoia involved in using double agents. James McAvoy's Percival, on the same side as Theron's Lorraine, is a wildcard who's either brilliant at blending in or has actually assimilated.
While most modern action films put all their effort into bigger and louder explosions, this kind of visceral and intimate combat is way more exciting.
The problem is this half of the film isn't great. Double agent storylines lend themselves to gasps and shocks, yet nothing comes close to eliciting that kind of response. It's an interesting watch, but it ought to be more than that. Deceptions feel meaningless, and revelations are limp. For a film with so many liars, none of the lies provide a thrill. Perhaps it's the overkill of suspicion that means when real motives are revealed the audience has been conditioned to expect them.
But the other half is a John Wick-esque action riot. Theron is a bonafide star in these roles, looking every part the combat pro that she is. The lighting, her aesthetic, the 80s soundtrack – they collide to give Atomic Blonde a distinct mood, and when this is paired with long-shot action scenes, it's a delight.
In particular a lengthy fight in a stairwell is outstanding. For five minutes the camera never cuts (though there is some trickery involved) and it follows Lorraine for every punch as she fights off those sent to kill her. It's exhausting to watch – she's worn down in real time, and it puts the audience through the ringer with her. While most modern action films put all their effort into bigger and louder explosions, this kind of visceral and intimate combat is way more exciting.
Atomic Blonde's balance is a little off. Its director, David Leitch, is a stunt coordinator who worked on John Wick, so he knows how to pull off fight scenes. It's when it becomes a spy thriller that it loses its footing. This imbalance makes Atomic Blonde good rather than great, leaving behind a feeling that it could have been so much more.
A Ghost Story - ★★★★★
Before A Ghost Story, director David Lowery remade Disney's Pete's Dragon, to none of the fanfare of recent remakes like Beauty and the Beast. It's an exceptional film, full of heart, wonder, and magic. It's no mean feat to take what can be a very obvious story and make it so the predictability is negligible. It's no longer about the plot but the feelings the film awakens.
In the hands of a lesser director, A Ghost Story would be a failure, but it's that mastery of drawing out feeling from audiences that means Lowery has made one of the year's best films.
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are a married couple who are clashing over whether to move house or not. Mara is keen to live in the city, but Affleck has an emotional resonance with the house they're in. In the middle of the night their piano's keys are struck, and upon rushing to confront a house invader, no one is there.
It is wonderfully bizarre and impossible to explain, but Lowery has made something deeply profound that will work its magic on you if you let it.
Not long after, Affleck's character dies in a car crash. He then rises from his bed in the mortuary and returns home, watching Mara's character get on with her life. He observes her from under this comical Halloween-like costume of a simple sheet and two eye-holes, like a ghost.
From then on it's a quiet film about Affleck's ghost in the house. It's about time, existence, memory, and hauntology. It's this existential explosion questioning existence as we know it, and where it really begins and ends. At the centre of all this wonder is the tangible love story between a young couple that ended cruelly, with no chance for goodbyes. There are lots of stories about the living coping with grief, but how do the dead deal with it? And what do they do next?
If it's action you're after, stay away. Three boys in front of me declared A Ghost Story the worst film they'd ever seen, while I sat and sobbed behind them at how beautiful it was. It is wonderfully bizarre and impossible to explain, but Lowery has made something deeply profound that will work its magic on you if you let it. Film of the year? Very possibly.
The Incredible Jessica James - ★★★★☆
This is the kind of film Netflix excels at. While cinemas slowly catch up to what all film fans know (diversity makes for richer storytelling), Netflix has given us the amazing Master of None and now The Incredible Jessica James.
There's nothing particularly new about Jessica James's story. She's going through a breakup, her life isn't quite like how she'd hoped, and maybe she should try dating again. It's the kind of mid-20s story everyone has heard even if no one knows where they heard it.
It's also a vehicle for Jessica Williams, the former Daily Show correspondent turned actor. Like Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Ed Helms before her, she made the most of that exposure, stealing the episodes away from Jon Stewart with every appearance. Here, she's electric, carrying the film and the character of Jessica James all the way to a success.
It's not the first kiss, it's the decision to unfollow your ex on Instagram.
It has nothing huge to say about race. James exists as a black woman in the big city without comment, which in itself is a statement. Yet it's still refreshing to see this oft-told story from a different point of view. Williams is quick witted, sharp, and insightful in real life, and she deserves the chance to show that on screen. And she makes something of every minute of The Incredible Jessica James.
Chris O'Dowd plays the guy she reluctantly goes on a date with, himself going through a breakup. He's affable and flawed. They're both in a bit of a mess, and find solace in that fact. It's not a will-they, won't-they as much as it's about accepting life's pitfalls and picking yourself back up. It's not the first kiss, it's the decision to unfollow your ex on Instagram.
It isn't life-changing, but it's excellent at what it is. James is someone you want to spend time with, and this little window hardly feels long enough. Williams is going to be a star.
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