Review: Atomic Blonde (cinema)

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Okay. Okay. Now I want to drive around at speed, punch things, and listen to ’80s music LOUD. It’s like my normal state, but MORE. This movie looked and sounded gorgeous. Blaring synth-pop tunes and flickering projectors, neons, and fluorescents tried to smother the violence, but the violence won out. You think Daredevil’s corridor fight looks tiring? You ain’t seen nothing. And between it all Charlize Theron smiles a wan smile and looks at you from beneath her too-long fringe. And you think: yes, please punch me in the face too.

To be honest, it took a little while to win me over to this extent. The way the music and the fight scenes intersected was telegraphed in such a stylised way that it bugged me at first, as did the stilted dialogue and self-conscious posing of Theron and James McAvoy around their ever present cigarettes and vodka. When she wasn’t speaking, Theron’s face said so much, but then something that wasn’t convincingly an English accent came out of her mouth in a clipped monotone and I wished repeatedly that the movie had no dialogue. This feeling faded — and I can’t decide if in the end my suspicions were validated or made redundant — and about a third of the way into the movie it hit its stride; basically once Lorraine had managed to gain some control over her mission.

It’s a movie that will benefit from rewatching (though perhaps I’m just bad at guessing the twists in spy movies), though it will mean rewatching the bad with the good. There’s a trope that’s embedded firmly in the genre that coincides with a trope that occurs too frequently across various media anyway. It wasn’t ‘as bad’ as I’d expected, having been spoiled, but frankly it remained unnecessary; and perhaps by not being ‘bad’ in the way I’d expected, it ended up being worse for being lazy in a different way.(1 – spoilers)

Anyway, probably because I knew it was coming, I let myself compartmentalise that part of the story, and I’m a little ashamed with how much I enjoyed the rest. It wasn’t terribly afflicted with the male gaze, but with mirrors everywhere it maintained a sexy, stylised look that I’d argue was a rung or so above Music Video. In the action scenes, and the less people talked, it felt less like a comic adaptation (and in this case I’m saying that’s a good thing). The action was where it shone: you could feel the bruising impact of each blow; you knew how much harder Lorraine had to work to land the kind of punch she needed to; but you knew she was capable of it. The stairwell fight and its follow-up were exhilarating and horrifying in equal parts.

By the end, what was a fairly simple premise — that many might have guessed the twists to earlier than I did — was wrung to a taut, smart finale. With all of Lorraine’s antagonist’s monologuing about the nature of ‘truth’, her contemptuous silence told you all you needed to know. His musings barely scratched the surface of her own experience.

She was a compelling hero, and Theron’s skills brought out layers of vulnerability as well as cunning that a lesser actor wouldn’t have managed. If it wasn’t for the specificity of the setting (as with so many Cold War movies) I’d be eager for a sequel that took care to avoid some of the tropes this one languished in. As a stand-alone it’s good fun though, and I’ll happily watch it again. It’s just not as revolutionary as it might have been, sadly; though it’s still smarter than a Bond movie.


(1) spoilers

Of course I’m talking about Delphine’s death. So soft and sweet and naïve — of course she wasn’t going to make it through. She managed more fight than I expected, and indeed was around longer than expected. But these were manifestations of the lazy storytelling I’m talking about: the movie wants you to think she means something to Lorraine. It wants you to see how close she came to winning, to living, to being rescued. But when you know from the beginning that she’s going to die, because not only must the love-interest die, but we must bury our gays, it’s … shall we say, very hard to let yourself get involved? Though tbf she did a lot better than Irina in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy…(and I love that movie too).

Review: Pom Poko (1994)

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Ok, I don’t think this is an uncommon response for those unfamiliar with the tanuki, but it took me a while to come up with more than: “I never thought I’d see so many raccoon scrota in one movie.” Apparently the connection between the raccoon dog/tanuki and enormous ball-sacks emerged relatively recently in Japanese folklore and popular culture, and is to do with the process of hammering out gold leaf inside a tanuki skin. Cool. There’s no indication of that connection in Pom Poko though, where the focus is very much on the legendary transformative abilities of the animals, which are put to use here to try to defend their land from human development.

Part precursor to Princess Mononoke, part Ghibli does The Animals of Farthing Wood, this is a strange blend of cute woodland shenanigans and the bleak realities of urban expansion. These two sides are represented in the art, as stylised and beautiful as we’ve all come to expect from a Ghibli movie, and from Isao Takahata himself. Generally, when they’re around humans or human activity, the tanuki are depicted realistically; when they’re experiencing strong emotion (grief, fear, joy) the crowd becomes more of a caricature, apparently in the style of surrealist manga. Most of the time though, they are anthropomorphised as above, the slightest details of hairstyle or accessory enough to make each individual stand out.

Now you’re just showing off…

Structurally, the movie is told in what might be described as chapters, although the narrative voice-over treats it more like a chronicle of the years since the tanuki were forced to band together to seek a solution for their shrinking habitat. At first, they fight each other, then they try to learn about the humans from television, and to rediscover the art of transformation. This leads to increasing levels of interaction with the human world as their abilities improve: initially they transform into trees and other objects in order to force road accidents at the construction site. This develops into more elaborate types of hauntings and apparitions at shrines, before culminating in a wild display of spirit activity in the nearby town (that unfortunately all goes a bit Beetlejuice on them). Their last act is to show the encroaching humans what the forest once looked like to all of them, before it was bulldozed for housing estates.

The story does end up dragging because of the necessarily repetitive nature of the tanuki’s attacks on the humans. They have a ‘five year plan’ that is begun early, but the movie still covers several years in the lives of the tanuki protagonists. Their lives revolve around the seasons — initially, they practice abstinence in order to keep their numbers steady, but after a year of this, followed by a series of small victories, self-control is lacking the following spring. See also: any comments section under an article connecting global warming to an ever-increasing human population. The tanuki are human-like also in their adoration of television and tempura, their disagreements over whether the solution to their problem should be a violent one or a peaceful one, and in the divisions between those who are able to transform and those who are not. I don’t know if it’s relevant to Japanese culture in the same way as British culture, but by the end of the movie I wondered whether the whole thing was actually meant to be a comment on class as much as on environmentalism. The tanuki who can transform become normal middle class humans: busy and tired with work and commuting, some of them selling out their old lands for easy money. Those who could never transform simply become urban wildlife: living fast, making lots of children and dying young. Additionally, there are the foxes (kitsune), who long ago gave up on their fellows who couldn’t transform, and moved wholesale into the human lifestyle, exploiting whoever they can, and clearly being depicted as suave and successful in their new lives. At the end, the main character, Shoukichi, sees his old friends frolicking gleefully under the moon on a golf course: after a long day in the human world, he sheds pieces of his human identity bit by bit, racing to join them in their carousing and singing. Concern for the tanuki is deflected by the voice-over, as we witness their success within the human world, and instead the movie ends with a reminder to think of the real animals, who can’t transform: rabbits, deer and others.

The movie is funny and surreal and, of course, looks utterly gorgeous. The characters aren’t deep enough that I ever felt it tugging hard on any heart-strings, but they’re a likeable bunch nonetheless. The blend of whimsy and brutality works fairly well; the animals, even with their anthropomorphic qualities, are made animal in a way I don’t recall seeing done so well since The Animals of Farthing Wood adaptation (though that certainly did do individualism and personality in more depth). Their lives are not bloodless and nor are the human lives they are at strife with. As with the sympathy shown to Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke, the humans living in the town nearby are shown to be as much at the mercy of the developers as the animals are: one says he’d happily leave only he can’t afford to live anywhere else. The workmen scared away by the tanuki are constantly replaced by more workmen. Maybe it’s ironic that the pressure already put on the environment by the human community ends up being added to by the foxes and raccoon dogs who transform to join their society.

Uncomprehendingly, a family that sees the tanuki close by their house marvel at the sight of them so near, and wish they could see them more often. There’s no answer or solution or happy victory at the end of Pom Poko: mingling folklore, environmentalism and a distrust of the distant bosses it remains contemporary, despite also feeling very early ’90s in some ways. The tanuki ultimately accept their fate with either the aggressive lack of compromise or the cheerful optimism with which they lived. It’s up to the viewer to take away a message from the film or to let the same thing keep happening.