Reviews & More: Hits and Miss

“Atomic Blonde” (in theaters)

If you’ve heard this is an extremely violent film and that there’s not much story and that it’s basically a vehicle for us to drool over Charlize Theron’s face, body, wardrobe and amazing fighting skills, then you have heard correctly. Although my tastes run counter to all of the above, I absolutely loved it. “Atomic Blonde” is pure escapism–two hours of an adrenaline rush, nonstop good guys vs. bad guys. It takes place in Berlin nearly 30 years ago, just as the wall is being torn down. British MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is alone against all kinds of spies, counter spiesand hit men. Her mission? To recover a stolen list of double agents and to find out who murdered a colleague.

We begin with close-ups of Broughton’s severely bruised, battered and ripped (in the muscular sense) body as she plunges into a soothing ice bath. We follow her, now dressed and made up to cover her bruises, into an interrogation room, and watch her being grilled by her MI6 superiors about her recent assignment. From there, the story unfolds in flashbacks that are all of a similar pattern: Theron posed in stunning black and white outfits before being set upon by enemies. A pair of six-inch red heels figures mightily in how she escapes her first attackers. Then she engages in badinage with fellow agent/cynic David Percival (James McAvoy, at the top of his game) while in a hail of gunfire. More of the same showcase Broughton’s superior martial arts and street smart skills. There are a couple of detours, such as a brief interlude of girl-on-girl sex with a beautiful French spy. But then the pattern reasserts itself: fashion show and more brilliantly staged and choreographed fights. Repetitious? Yes. Boring? Not to me. Outstanding are a couple of astonishing set pieces: a 20-minute rumble up and down staircases, through hallways and in elevators, bodies flying everywhere and giving the audience almost no chance to breathe; and a gasp-inducing car chase unlike any you’ve seen before. The director, David Leitch, is a former stunt coordinator and co-director of the first “John Wick,” and his skill set is exactly what’s needed here. Add sweeping camerawork by Sean McElwee, a fine supporting cast and you have one of those films for which the word “escapist” was coined.

      

“The Incredible Jessica James”

(on Netflix)

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If you were a fan of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, you may remember Jessica Williams as a very funny senior correspondent. A stunning, six-foot black woman, she stars in a movie that seems tailor-made for her, including using her first name for the character she plays. Alas, “The Incredible Jessica James,” an often charming romantic comedy, doesn’t really work very well. Jessica is a not-yet-produced young playwright living in Brooklyn. Her personality is arrogant, controlling and self-confident to the point of being a major turn-off, a façade that she only lets down with her best friend (talented Noel Wells).

Jessica is not yet over a recent break-up and her defenses are so strong that when she meets Boone (Chris O’Dowd) he has to work pretty hard to keep her interest. A visit to her childhood home in Ohio lets us understand her better–she was the oddball “artist” in a family of just plain regular people–and her creativity with kids at a theater games workshop is illuminating and touching. But the separate pieces don’t hold together into a satisfying, coherent whole. Two things save “The Incredible Jessica James” from being just so-so: Williams is a very strong presence with energy and personality to spare–she will go far. Plus, the cast is interracial; not once does the subject of skin color come up. When they talk about color-blind casting, this is the result, and it is a pleasure to see. 

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