Movie reviews: 'Lady Macbeth' delivers icy tale of vengeance
Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth. (Lady Macbeth/Roadside Attractions)
Published Friday, July 28, 2017 6:00AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, July 28, 2017 7:09AM EDT
LADY MACBETH: 3 ½ STARS
“Lady Macbeth,” a new drama based on Nikolai Leskov’s Russian novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk,” is not your father’s period drama. Disturbing and diabolical, it’s an erotic thriller that examines gender politics, power and class.
Set in rural northern England in 1865 we first meet Katherine (Florence Pugh) when she is just seventeen years old, sold, along with a plot of land, into an arranged marriage with a much older man, Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton). Her job, according to the cruel and unyielding family patriarch Boris (Christopher Fairbank), is to provide an heir to the family fortune, but their marriage is a sham, loveless and impotent.
When Alexander abruptly leaves for an extended trip abroad, she is left behind in the rambling, damp manor home. Alone, save for a handful of servants, including Anna (Naomi Ackie), she is bored and unhappy until she meets groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). The two begin a torrid affair, unafraid of prying eyes. “He hates his father,” she says of Alexander, “he hates me. He won’t come back.” Except he does come back, pushing Katherine to extreme measures to preserve her relationship with Sebastian.
More “The Making of a Murderer” than “Wuthering Heights,” ice runs through the veins of “Lady Macbeth.” Cold and austere, the story of sexual rebellion is given life by Pugh’s mesmerizing performance. Her insolence and opportunism are fascinating to watch as she thumbs her nose at the social norms of the day. Don’t let the stillness of her performance fool you. Her calm, collected demeanour hides Katherine’s conniving nature, but much is revealed in the small details. The fire in her eyes as Alexander says, “I do not like owning a whore,” the tilt of her head as Boris berates her. In her case, the devil is literally in the details. It’s tremendous work that should spell big things for her.
She is ably supported by Ackie and Jarvis. Ackie, in a performance of few words, still manages to convey a great depth of feeling, while Jarvis compellingly plays a man torn between the physical pleasures Katherine offers and the metaphysical consequences of their actions.
Through Katherine’s power struggle, “Lady Macbeth” deftly shows how the various hierarchies of class -- patriarch Boris controls Alexander, Alexander dominates Katherine (or thinks he does), leaving her with power over the house staff -- can be upended in a ruthless social coup. The oppressed become conquerors and vice versa in a story that treats vengeance like an everyday event.
ATOMIC BLONDE: 4 STARS
"I didn't just want to play a girly spy who depends on her flirty ways," Charlize Theron told W Magazine. Mission accomplished. Based on the wild ‘n woolly graphic novel "The Coldest City" by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart "Atomic Blonde" is a Cold War thriller that sees Theron dropkick Daniel Craig or Matt Damon out of the space they've occupied as film's go-to super spies.
Set in 1989, just days before the fall of the Berlin wall, the film starts with the KGB assassination of an undercover MI6 operative in East Berlin. Theron plays Agent Lorraine Broughton, a high-ranking MI6 spy sent to the communist side of the wall to retrieve a dossier containing the names of other vulnerable British intelligence assets. "It's an atomic bomb of information that could set the Cold War back 40 years!"
Toby Jones and John Goodman as MI6 and CIA head honchos respectively urge her not to trust anyone but she sparks up a personal and professional relationship with an inexperienced French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella). Because everybody wants the dossier she is teamed with shady Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy)—a "feral" man who moonlights selling bootlegged Jack Daniels to tourists—to beat the US, UK, USSR and France to the punch. How? By folding, spindling, mutilating, punching, kicking and head butting. There's death by cork screw, fist and bullet and everything in between in some of the most dynamic fight scenes we're likely to see on screen this year (and that includes "John Wick 2).
The trailers make "Atomic Bomb" look like wall-to-wall action. It isn't. It's a cold war spy movie with intermittent wild and woolly fisticuffs. And that's OK. The fight scenes definite highlights and get the pulse racing but to be truly effective all movies must have hills and valleys.
If it was all action it would be like a Jason Statham movie. All talking it would be "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." As it is it hits the sweet spot between the two.
It's a stylish film with visceral action scenes connected by an original cold war story, compelling characters and German versions of 80s pop hits.
This isn't a Michael Bay style spectacular, it's up-close-and-personal bareknuckled warfare. Theron and her victims grunt and groan as fists hits faces and all manner of mayhem is unleashed. One particularly intense fight scene mixes and matches the above mentioned grunts and groans with the catchy pop of George Michaels' "Father Figure." An even more effective sequence gets rid of the music completely.
The tour de force six minute fight scene looks like a one-shot wonder. It's hard to believe there isn't some trickery involved but the sequence is dazzling nonetheless.
As Broughton, Theron is not a superhero. She comes out on top of most fights but emerges bruised and battered.
"Atomic Blonde" is a violent, arty spy flick that doesn't just open the door for Charlize Theron to create an effective spy franchise, it kicks it off its hinges.
PHOENIX FORGOTTEN: 2 ½ STARS
All found footage films need to find a reason to exist, a reason why there is a camera set permanently to the on position. In the case of “Phoenix Forgotten,” it’s a sister trying to make a documentary about her brother’s disappearance.
“Are you going to be filming the whole time?” asks her father.
“That’s the whole idea,” says Sophie (Florence Hartigan).
“I feel like Harrison Ford,” he laughs.
With that framework out of the way, the story gets going, using the (now debunked) real life Phoenix, Arizona UFO sightings of March 13, 1997 as a backdrop for the action.
When sonic booms rocked the city, Josh Bishop (Luke Spencer Roberts) didn’t buy his father’s explanation that the air force was doing a practice run overhead. Shooting some grainy footage, the teenager decides to investigate. With the help of school friends Ashley Foster (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark Abrams (Justin Matthews) and a borrowed school handycam, he sets off to into the desert filled with curiosity. The three never finish their makeshift documentary. Disappearing after they left their car on the desert edge, extensive searches by a small army of law enforcement turn up no clues. Were they in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was it a fight over the girl? Or was it something otherworldly? “We didn’t find anything,” says a police officer involved in the search, “so who knows what happened. It’s hard to speculate.”
Twenty years later, sister Sophie picks up the story, arriving in town with her ever-present camera. “What if Josh was on to something?” she says. “We always assumed he got lost or kidnapped or murdered. What if…” What if he got kidnapped by an alien? “I’m starting to sound like him,” she muses. When she finds Josh’s video camera, returned to the lost and found of the school he borrowed it from, more clues emerge.
As a genre, found footage is showing its age. From the brilliant “Blair Witch Project,” on it has been used, primarily in cheap-and-cheerful budget horror and sci-fi films, to create a sense of urgency in a first-person narrative. Trouble is, they’ve been done to death, and their techniques don’t feel fresh anymore. At some point the screen will fill with static (check), the cast of unknowns will look panicked and confused (check), the protagonists will run, camera in hand, causing the picture to jiggle as though it was strapped to the back of a runaway horse (check), there will be Dr. Tongue-style close-ups (check), and the inevitable dropped camera freeze frame (check).
Despite its stylistic predictability, “Phoenix Forgotten” succeeds on several levels. Director Justin Barber has a nice ear for the rhythms of the character’s speech and draws good naturalistic performances from the cast of unknowns. The story doesn’t completely impress, and Barber takes way too long setting up the mystery, but the actors are engaging. He also does a nice job cutting together Sophie’s slick documentary footage with the grainy 1990s handy cam material.
The mix of fact and fiction in “Phoenix Forgotten” isn’t all that scary, but Barber does whip up some intense and paranoid moments.