Atomic Meh – a review

Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron and featuring James McAvoy, Toby Jones and John Goodman is the directorial effort – a full debut if you will allow – of David Leitch. Leitch, an actor, stuntman, writer and producer, came to prominence as one of the co-directors on the brilliant Keanu Reeves starrer, John Wick. With its simple premise and brisk execution, John Wick was one of the best action films to come out in the last few years.
One of the reasons for its success was given as the expertise of its two directors in stunt work and action set piece coordination. This expertise is evident in Atomic Blonde. Every fight scene, almost as impressive as John Wick, is fluid and kinetic, the sound design implemented perfectly for every punch, kick, knee and bullet. There is one fight sequence towards the end of the film that is so gratifyingly violent it is almost worth the admission price on its own.
The statuesque Theron is perfectly cast as Lorraine Broughton – not the greatest spy name – an MI6 operative sent into cold war Germany, in nineteen eighty-nine, to retrieve a list that contains a list of all the undercover operatives in Europe. The situation is complicated by fractious East/West relations as the Berlin wall is seen as the symbol of oppression that it was and some other nonsense wherein the operative who had the list was an old flame of Lorraine. Lorraine is told her contact in Berlin is David Percival (McAvoy) an agent who has been undercover for some time in Berlin.
Cards on the table, I must admit I did not love this film. It was by no means terrible or even bad. It was just okay. The biggest problem is the convoluted story. The ‘missing list’ story has been done so many times it is becoming its own sub-genre! It was done fantastically in Skyfall and to great comedic effect in Spy. In Atomic Blonde, the list is seen as so vital that every covert agency and nefarious group in the world wants it. I, however, didn’t care.
A spy ‘thriller’, punctuated with some great action scenes, Atomic Blonde is unnecessarily complex in the story with one never sure if any character is who they purport to be. It also utilises a, in my opinion, detrimental style in the telling of the story, with a beat up looking Lorraine recalling the events in a debriefing meeting, post mission. The story is shown in flashback, interspersed with tension free moments of her being questioned in the present.
As far as I can see, the title of the film only serves as reference to Theron’s stylistic nod to eighties Debbie Harry and – a little misguidedly – her explosive fighting style. I say it’s misguided because – and I cannot emphasise this enough – it is not an action film. There is too much Tinker, Tailor and not enough Die Hard for it to be a true action film, which is a pity because, as I alluded to earlier, the fight scenes are truly spectacular.
With the talent on show the acting is, of course, top class. McAvoy as the caddish Percival is probably the standout alongside Theron’s Lorraine, though I feel Sofia Boutella as the callow French spy Delphine Lasalle is very good, she is not served by an underwritten character. The story also suffers from – especially in the first hour – pedestrian pacing, the constant back and forth really slowing things down.
Roland Moller, who plays the chief antagonist, Aleksander Bremovych, is basically asked to deliver a clichéd villain’s performance, with his introduction, by – believe me this not much of a spoiler – killing a quivering youth with a skateboard, is so heavily signposted it fails to elicit any real impact. After his show of Alpha maleness, he is barely seen for the rest of the film.
Technically Atomic Blonde is very good. So uninspired by the story unfolding on the screen was I that I was able to appreciate the deliberate silver-whiteness of the colour palette, aiding the eighties feel of the film. Though I liked the sound design in general, I did not love the soundtrack. Having said that, Theron’s Lorraine using George Michael as a sound suppressant in one fight scene was inspired.
Atomic Blonde is not the worse way to spend two hours and I would even say the fight scenes are worth the admission price, but if you were hoping for an engaging story and action flick, Atomic Blonde misses the mark.

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Fairly Fearsome Future

I think this blog is going to be short. I made the mistake of missing out on doing a daily blog last weekend and find myself in the midst of the purgatory that is writer’s block. I have ideas for a few stories, feature length script ideas, I also have several projects that need rewrites and/or reworking, not to mention the distinct lack of blogs.
I have started writing scenes on cards. You would think with all the technology and programs around – Final Draft, Scrivner, Celtx – that working scenes out in a random, as-they-come fashion, would be easy. It isn’t. Something about clicking and dragging, as opposed to the shuffling about of 3 x 5 cards, is just less appealing and interrupts my creative process.
Meanwhile, other ideas are crashing in on my psyche, completely unrelated to any of the stuff I am trying to focus on. It is as if my brain is hardwired for procrastination, with the smallest thing taking my focus away from the task at hand. This blog is a case in point, I’ve been writing it for three days and I have managed less than two hundred words!
I think the thought of writing a feature length script is affecting me. There is no reason it should, as I have written longer pieces and shorter bits, but that one hundred to one hundred and twenty pages of a complete – no, I am not going to think of a trilogy! – story, beginning, middle and end, is strangely daunting. It is the building of a compelling story, with interesting characters, driven by an unavoidable goal, plus engaging the emotions that is the challenge. It is exactly what every film guru tells you, what every great film shows, what every screenwriter is trying to and believes they are doing when they embark on a screenplay.
So, it is obvious now, as I write this babbling blog, what the issue is. It’s fear and not the weird, but strangely real fear, of succeeding. Nope, this is proper, I could royally fuck this up fear. This is the fear where you write something and end up second guessing yourself, lacking the courage of your convictions. This is the kind of fear that makes one write derivative works, clichéd works, boring, safe work. The sort of stuff that no one, not even your nearest and dearest, can get through when you ask for their feedback.
Perhaps I am being a tad melodramatic. The fear of writing horribly is all too real though. No one starts writing and tackles rewrites with the thought of producing something sub par. In the mind, it is always a great idea. Then you put it on paper and start, hopefully, to see the flaws. If you’re fortunate, they are easily fixed, more structural than poorly thought out.
Sometimes one can become wedded to a bad idea, desperate to make it work. I myself have many an unfinished script or story where the excitement of an idea, when you think you have an original take on something, turns out to be a bit rubbish or not as compelling on the page as it was in my head. What is the alternative? Give up writing? No chance. Even as I wrestle with the notion of perhaps not becoming an Oscar, Emmy or Bafta award winning scribe, or not being good enough to make the slightest dent in the lowliest of film festivals, I know that I want to write.
The thought of not writing or making a film has not really occurred to me as a possibility or probability. Maybe, even with the advancing years and a lifetime of experience, I still retain that almost necessary naiveté, believing I can still make my way in the cruellest and unforgiving industry that is film and television. Only time – and a herculean effort – will tell.

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Dunkirk – War Kills: a film review

So, I did what I said I would do and went and watched Dunkirk, even though it is a war film and I am really not a fan of war films, but as it was a Christopher Nolan film, I made an exception. And I am glad that I did! My head is still hurting from the emotional impact of the piece. It is a film that has deservedly garnered five-star reviews.
With an incredibly sparse script, this is a story told how film should be, without all the clever exposition – though there is a tiny bit -, just a full on visual and aural assault. It is so evident in the storytelling that this is a subject that is close to Nolan’s heart. After a quiet, sedate opening, that last less than two minutes, the bombs, literally and aurally, start dropping.
Besides the sound, in an age where the ability to film in 4K or 1080p digital is available to anyone who can afford a high-end mobile phone or even just a good DSLR camera, Nolan, a real film lover, resolutely shoots on celluloid. With Dunkirk, he shot the film on 70mm celluloid and it looks spectacular for it. The colour depth is astounding, everything looking real without looking overly enhanced or saturated.
The wide shots of the beach have you staring as if you were actually on the beach, sand and soldiers as far as the eyes can see. Nolan’s obsession with water – Inception, Interstellar – continues in Dunkirk out of pure necessity. There is so much of the channel in this film, one could get seasickness. So many shots display the vastness and isolation that the young men feel as they wait and struggle and strive to escape the hell of the war and the impending arrival of the German forces.
Hans Zimmer is at the peak of his powers on the soundtrack, his powerful melodies carrying the emotion of war as much as the bombings and air raids. As much as the picture is captivating and the sound both deafening and enveloping, it is the way that the film makes you feel that is especially powerful.
Fear is a terrible and powerful thing and in the faces of the young soldiers, hoping and praying to get back to a home that, with a keen eye, can be seen on a clear day from the beaches, makes the fear tangible. Exposed on an open beach and piers, as they wait for transportation that may or may not be coming, the sound of an incoming enemy plane, laden with bombs, a horrible siren of death and they can do nothing but cower and pray that, though they are prepared to die for their fellow countrymen on the field of battle, the bomb does not drop on them and instead hits some other poor unfortunate soul.

At just over an hour and forty minutes long, Dunkirk is one of Nolan’s shortest films in some years. Not that the running time affects the storytelling. If anything, it enhances it, such is the tension when watching, it is hard to know if it would have been possible to maintain that tension over two hours.
As has been popular recently, there was an appearance by a famous face, one that is not known for acting. After Ed Sheeran turning up in the omnipresent Game Of Thrones and David Beckham lending his thespian talents to Guy Richie’s latest effort, King Arthur, neither of which I have seen – sorry, I don’t watch GOT and I’m too far behind to start now – both cameos getting a critical bashing, it was a risk for Nolan to cast a pop star whose magnitude matches Ed Sheeran’s. Not only did he cast Harry Styles, he of One Direction fame – I know the band, but please do not ask me to name one of their tracks! – he gave him a proper role, an acting role and he was good.
Looking the right age to play a young soldier, Styles blends in seamlessly with the surroundings, his stratospheric fame not affecting or impacting the performance. Nolan claimed to have no notion as to who Styles was before the shooting of the film. Perhaps this is true, but if Styles global fame can entice a new audience, a younger audience that probably would have no interest in Dunkirk and its place in history were it not for their idol, then the casting, accidental or not, will have been a stroke of genius. Just like the film.

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Bloggus Interuptus

I have not been blogging with my usual regularity. Life has got in the way a little bit and I decided that I wanted to get some editing practice in, just as a way to keep in with the ‘I’m a filmmaker’ narrative I keep telling myself. Frameline.tv is my go to for lonesome film practice needs. Their site has great information for a would be filmmaker and they also have a load of RAW film clips to work on – editing, colour, effects – take a gander.

links to my own efforts are below.

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Stuck On Story

There are, apparently, many methods to use when coming up with a story or an idea for a story. The most common and by default, most popular, is the different perspective story. One reads or sees or is told of an incident or happening and tries to imagine it from a different point of view. There is also the method I favour of imagining what happened around the incident to cause it.
My normal approach to coming up with a story is to have one scene in my mind, it could be a short scene or even just an encounter, it may not even lend itself to a particular genre or even hint at a story, but once I have a scene played out in my mind, my brain will start building a story around it.
As tempting as it is, I will not start writing until I know how my story is going to end. I know if I start writing I will just waffle on, hoping that the story will work out. It won’t. Not that I plan the story or script out from beginning to end. Oft times I don’t even know what characters I have, introducing characters as I need them, a very first draft way to work.
There is a school of thought that says one should begin with a log-line, the story encapsulated in one sentence. This is supposed to help you stay on course whilst writing, the central premise of the work nailed in the log-line. It is not something that I have tried with any great conviction, as I have always found it difficult to come up with a log-line and anyone who pays any attention to any of the many filmmaking gurus who populate the net, will understand my anxiety at not being able to nail my story in a sentence.
According to just about every filmmaking guru ever, one should be able to tell one’s story in a sentence. If you cannot sum up your idea in a sentence, it is probably not very good. Admittedly, every classic film can be described in a sentence, but not necessarily a compelling one. Besides, what is of interest to one person is not always of interest to the masses.
The story, the script, has to come first, everything else is secondary. We have all seen beautiful films that did not quite work – “cough, cough” Avatar “cough, cough” – because the story was only written to serve the visuals or some new technological advance. Technology should help to enhance storytelling, not the other way around.
Write what you know is another popular gem that is bandied about by many a screenwriting sage. Though, on the face of it, this is good advice, what if you know very little? What if what you know isn’t particularly interesting? Some people have an encyclopaedic knowledge of stamps, but not many would want to see or write a film about that. If people only wrote what they knew about, some of the greatest and most imaginative literary and cinematic works would never have come to be.
This where the procrastination is both dangerous and a necessity. It is the fine balance between creative rumination and avoiding tackling a story or project. Sometimes one needs to take a step back from a project, let it sit awhile and then come back to it with a fresh perspective. One does not want to leave it too long because each work has its own momentum, a momentum that once broken can take a long time, months, maybe even years to get back.
Like any skill or discipline, as ethereal as fiction writing can be, the more you do it the better you become. Unless you repeat the same mistakes over and over, one cannot help but improve with consistent application. So it looks as though I’m going to have to contradict myself and launch into writing a story without an end in mind. After all, practice makes perfect.

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It’s Story Time

Ever since I have decided that I am going to write a feature film I have had a mini mental block. I have no idea for a story that I think will make a good feature length film. I do not even have a genre preference. My short films were all couples related, comedic with a twist. A five-minute film, however, is a lot different from a ninety to a hundred minutes feature.
It is not even the long form that I am worried about. My favourite type of writing or story is the serial, with the arc running the entire season. Two ideas I have tackled and written are first episodes of serial ideas. Even when I wrote a sitcom it was with a six episode arc in mind. I seem to find it difficult to think in terms of a self-contained, eighty, ninety or hundred minute film.
Even as I write the above words I know it’s silly. After all, the length of a project is entirely up to me. Obviously, some subjects lend themselves better to a more detailed – serial – approach and others work better as a short format. Still, no idea or scenario is presenting itself as something to tackle with the potential to become a feature length script.
I am thinking to just start writing, a bit like my approach to blogging sometimes, I write and something comes to me. This is not always the best approach, as even I have to admit that at times the blogs have meandered on occasion, the subject matter sometimes petering out. The reason I write a blog every day – one day film related, one-day fitness and mind related, alternating – is that waiting for inspiration to write was not working.
Sure, I would occasionally get inspired and write furiously and passionately about some subject. Unfortunately, it would sometimes be months between blogs and, practically speaking, writing so in frequently is not the best practice. I feel that my forced practice of writing everyday is more beneficial than hoping or praying for inspiration.
It is a practice that I think I may have to adopt in relation to screenwriting. Probably not on a daily basis, but thrice weekly at the bare minimum. One cannot be a screenwriter or filmmaker without producing some kind of work, whether it is writing, filming or editing, because without the doing I am just another bloke dreaming of accolades without the work.
I also believe that one’s brain adapts to the patterns and challenges you throw at it. My decision some months back to write everyday means that I am thinking about what to write or searching for a subject to write about everyday. I know that I am going to write a blog and on which blog it is going to be posted, so I am – or my brain is – always searching for something I feel I can bring my voice to or maybe write about from an unusual angle.
My thoughts are that I need to focus on storytelling. Though dialogue is my strength when script writing, people watch and enjoy films and shows for the story and the journey the story takes them on. The mechanics of story and scenes are something that can be studied extensively, with many a film guru or scholar on YouTube, blogs, Facebook and at seminars happy to tell you all the things you need to do to write the ‘perfect’ screenplay.
Three act structure, five act structure, fifteen point plot map, the twenty-two must use elements, so many possible ‘right’ methods to adopt or follow, but when all is said and done, it is still people doing stuff that they care about or cared for, that create stories that you might empathise with.
The upshot of all of this waffle is I need to start writing more fiction. Writing and wanting to write is what has ultimately driven me thus far. It is time to get even more strategic; it’s story time.

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Do The Doing

I have been editing. In an effort to be mildly proactive, as well as exercising some creative procrastination, I looked up the Framelines.tv website to see if they had been doing anymore interactive editing stuff. Turns out they have. A while back I found their site through a link and had fun editing some of the raw footage they provide specifically for that purpose.
At that time they had put up a collection of clips for a horror scene. You not only get to edit it but colour and work on sound design as well. It proved very popular, with many edits popping up on YouTube and Vimeo. My effort is here.
Having not fired up the old editing software for awhile – I use FCPX – and not having used it since the last update, some of the interfaces had changed. All the basic edit features were, thankfully, still the same. Most importantly, the keyboard shortcuts are the same, though I believe a lot of the shortcuts are common across editing software.
I found two lots of footage to play with, one a hospital scene with a doctor breaking bad news to a couple. This scene was for the student – me – to concentrate on was is called an L cut. An L cut is when one character is speaking and you switch to see the reaction of the person listening to the point of some relevant information. As the scene is about the talking and the actors’ reactions the editing should be natural and feel unobtrusive.
As I mentioned, I have not edited for awhile and found this more challenging than I would have expected. The actual cutting was not too difficult and the colour work was quite straightforward, sound, however, was hard, not the dialogue, but the mood music, which after four hours of editing was probably not done to the highest standard. You can judge my attempt for yourself here.
The second project was much more to my liking, though I must admit still not easy. An action project, it sees a woman walking into a room, shotgun at the ready. She is accosted from behind by a man, who she quickly dispatches. She turns to face a second assailant, who tries to punch her. Slipping the blow, she knees him to the body. He is followed by another assailant who swings a baton at her, which she evades and takes him down with an elbow. She then pulls out two hand guns and shoots a fourth stooge. This all happens in less than two minutes. The edit is kinetic, to say the least.
I have not even begun to work on the sound or look for music – freesound.org is my go to for all things sound – and I have only added a Sony LUT that I’ve reduced the intensity of by twenty-five percent as far as colour correction goes. All I have at the moment is a rough edit and rather than rush the work – I must admit that the excitement of editing the hospital scene, dull though the scene is, did have me rushing – I have left the edit for another day.
My meandering approach to becoming a filmmaker – though I have made films, I do not consider myself a filmmaker, even if one only has to eat one person to be considered a cannibal. I’m not sure the same holds true for filmmaking. – I am writing with regularity, though not scripts, the ideas are coming and the want to create is definitely back. I am edging toward doing.
Ultimately, it is only the doing that matters and in this regard – and the fact that I really enjoy it – getting back to editing has been a great step. I very much want, almost need, to write a feature film now. I have always leant more toward television writing as I have more of a love of television than I do of film, but from a creative standpoint – story, editing, colour, directing, production – film is where I see myself going. Just got to keep doing.

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