Whack A Mole

Cliff Walkers

by George Wolf

At this point, Yimou Zhang could bring a two-hour rendering of my neighbor’s lawn maintenance regimen to the big screen, and I’ll be there opening night.

After Shadow, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Raise the Red Lantern and so many more, Zhang has proven himself a bona fide stare-at-the-screen-in-awe visual master.

He’s no slouch in the storytelling department either, and those skills move a little closer to the spotlight in Cliff Walkers, screenwriter Yongxian Quan’s intricate tale of espionage in the years before WWII.

It is 1931, and four Russian-trained Chinese communist party agents parachute into snow-covered Manchukuo (a Japanese occupation that was previously Chinese Manchuria) to put operation “Utrennya” into action. Their orders are to locate a surviving witness to a Japanese massacre, and smuggle him out to shed light on the atrocities.

The four agents agree to split up in pairs, and the double-crosses come early and often. As one pair of agents attempts to find and warn the other, a cascade of spy games, torture, accusations and suspicion gels into a suspenseful and engrossing ride.

And though Cliff Walkers may be less overtly showy than Zhang’s usual visuals, it is no less stunning. The constant snowfall becomes a character in itself, deadening the footsteps that run through the streets and enveloping the wonderfully constructed set pieces in gorgeous color contrast.

Many a butt is smoked in Cliff Walkers, and many a deadly stare is leveled in the criss-crossing searches for moles, snitches, turncoats and witnesses. Blood will be shed, and sacrifices will be made.

And again, Yimou Zhang will make it easy to get lost in, and nearly impossible to look away from.

Good Beat, You Can Dance To It

The Rhythm Section

by George Wolf

The sexy assassin. The beautiful killing machine.

The Rhythm Section plays a tune that’s lately been as popular as Taylor Swift at the high school talent show. But hey, there’s still a ways to go before it catches up to the macho men, so have at it ladies, the right arrangement can always find some swing in the mustiest of standards.

Blake Lively is Stephanie, a top student at Oxford who falls hard after losing her family to an airplane bomber. How hard? She’s an addict and a prostitute, but her destructive spiral finds a new avenue when an investigative reporter seeks her out.

He’s on the trail of the terrorist responsible for the bombing, and Stephanie’s cooperation sets a chain of events in motion that quickly lead to an ex MI-6 operative (Jude Law) training her to be a killer.

And why would he do that, exactly?

Keep that question at bay and you’ll find a serviceable thriller that hits plenty of familiar beats, but is always kept watchable through Lively’s committed performance.

Screenwriter Mark Burnell adapts his own novel as a globe-trotting exercise in exorcising your demons. And while multiple character motivations can get murky, the relationship between Stephanie and her mysterious mentor is always engaging.

Director Reed Morano (I Think We’re Alone Now, TV projects such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Halt and Catch Fire) can stage a nifty fight scene and breathless car chase, but she too often seems desperately in search of a definitive style that never finds a groove.

While soundtrack choices and soft focus flashbacks feel forced, Morano’s detached treatment of Lively’s physical appearance may be the most original pillar in the film. Though her role is plenty physical and Lively never shrinks from it, even the obligatory “red sparrow” sequence offers an overdue counterpoint to the usual leering camera served up by Morano’s male counterparts.

Expect the usual questions of “who can I trust” and the usual fine performance from Sterling K. Brown (that guy’s busy), who shows up as an ex-CIA agent with valuable contacts.

But most of all, expect Lively to keep The Rhythm Section humming, even when it’s set on repeat.

The Spy Who Fell Short

Spectre

by Hope Madden

Three years ago, director Sam Mendes took the reins of the Bond franchise, pitting cyber terrorism against old fashioned knuckle and grit, employing the most talented international actors working, and crafting the single best 007 film of its then 50-year legacy, Skyfall. Hell, it even had the best song. That’s a big martini glass to fill with a follow up, and his Spectre can’t quite live up.

In what’s rumored to be Daniel Craig’s last go-round as Bond, cybercrime and the possible end of the Double 0 program are again the causes of conflict. M (Ralph Feinnes) has a new boss who’s more interested in a global surveillance than man-on-the-ground spying, but Bond can’t be worried about that right now. He has a secret mission and an old adversary to deal with.

Christoph Waltz, an ideal candidate as a Bond villain, is the puppet master, and through him Mendes gets to toss in scores of nods and winks to the entire span of 007 films. There are gadgets, familiar names, enormous henchmen, Bond girls, elaborately staged chases, cheeky one-liners, and cocktails being “shaken, not stirred.” There’s even a board meeting of evil worthy of an Austin Powers film or a Simpsons send-up.

There’s too little else, though.

The film starts off gloriously enough with a brilliantly filmed action piece set in Mexico City’s Day of the Dead parade, but Mendes and crew soon settle into a muddled, anti-climactic mishmash of old tropes and familiar ideas. Spectre offers dozens of gorgeously framed, eerily lit, elegant images, but the drama and style of the previous effort are missing.

Shallow writing full of ludicrous sequencing and convenient decisions rob the film of the resonance Skyfall offered. Lined up against most Bond efforts, Spectre is a fun, lively bit of entertainment. It just so badly misses the high water mark left by Skyfall that it can’t help but feel like a let-down.

Verdict-2-5-Stars





All the Kingsman

Kingsman: The Secret Service

by Hope Madden

Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman work well together. The writing/directing team produced two new era superhero movies – Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class – and now they want to create a new kind of spy movie with Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Based on comics by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, their screenplay hips up the old Bond-style gentlemen agent when Code Name: Galahad (a very fit Colin Firth) introduces a talented street kid to the world of espionage.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is Galahad’s candidate to join the Kingsmen – a nation-agnostic spy organization as old and as prim as they come. If Eggsy makes it through training and beats the other candidates, he will take his place alongside Galahad as the group’s newest member, Code Name: Lancelot.

Unless, that is, some lisping billionaire (Samuel L. Jackson) takes his super villain role too seriously and ends the world before training is over.

Firth is a charmer and a joy in the mentor role, and though Jackson’s lisp comes and goes, he makes for a fun villain and his odd-couple onscreen chemistry with Firth is priceless. Egerton, who shoulders much of the film, is an effortlessly likeable presence.

But Vaughn is the star of this film. Kingsmen is often vulgar and crass but always fun and sometimes shockingly funny. The whole affair feels a tad like a British version of Kick-Ass: lovable loser turned unexpected hero, affectionate nods to cinematic forebears, brash new ideas taking familiar genre tropes in excitedly sloppy new directions. Aaah, the refreshing chaos of youth.

The comic timing is fresh and the action sequences are a blast There’s one scene in particular of hillbilly church service carnage set to Skynyrd’s redneck classic Free Bird that is magnificent.

Not every joke lands well. Some fly off in crass directions, but none more than the Bond-esque romantic entanglement that finishes the film. It starts off a saucy little homage, turns questionably but forgivably rank, then, quite unfortunately takes that ugly joke two steps further. Maybe you always thought Bond has too much respect for women? This is not that film, bro.

But, you know, leave after that last bit with Jackson and this movie is really good!

Verdict-3-5-Stars





Late August Man

The November Man

by Hope Madden

Somehow, it’s easy to lower your expectations in August, and a film that would seem stale and dated in, say, May or even November, can feel almost like a relief. The November Man is one of those movies.

Its lack of digital wizardry – relying, as it does, on old fashioned practical effects – feels like a welcome respite from the summer’s FX bombast. And though this agent-thinks-he’s-out-but-gets-pulled-back-in tale brings very little new to the table, at least it isn’t If I Stay. Or Sin City 2. Or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Oh, August.

At first blush, the film appears to be a James Bond rip off, right down to the lead and his lady (Pierce Brosnan and Quantum of Solace Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko). But this film casts off any interest in smooth, sly espionage, gadgetry, one-liners and one night stands in favor of something a little more brutish.

Brosnan’s ex CIA op retires not long after an incident with a trainee he deems unfit for service. But when a colleague needs a favor and pulls him back in for one last gig…well, when does that ever go as planned? Next thing you know, he’s trying to figure out what went wrong with his op while he plays cat and mouse with that old trainee, now a trained CIA sniper with bigger ambitions.

Brosnan’s grizzled charm buoys the effort, even when he’s pursing his lips like a school marm at his former trainee (a mostly serviceable Luke Bracey). The film falters most in its dual purposes: mentor/mentee cat and mouse versus international conspiracy leading to a puppet Russian president with a pension for under aged war refugees.

The truth is, neither side is especially compelling on its own, and when the two blur together, things feel just silly.

Still, The November Man isn’t bad. It’s no Skyfall – the new high water mark for spy movies – but it’s no Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, either. Remember that one? From January of this year? Yeah, January is another one of those bad movie months. At least in August the bad movies don’t come with snow.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars