Friday, August 11, 2017


Opening this weekend:

The Nut Job 2: Nutty by NatureIt may be that Our Commander in Chief raised the profile of this movie a bit when, with the presidential gravitas we’ve come to expect from him, he reportedly referred to his fired FBI Director as a “nut job.” Not much less than executive action could have kept this sequel to 2014’s animated feature The Nut Job, a particularly drab and unrewarding kidflick, from flying under the radar. 

The original, which was based, in turn, on a much better 2005 cartoon short from Canada called Surly Squirrel, was about squirrels and other fuzzy little creatures from a city park raiding the nut shop across the street in the manner of a noir heist movie. It was promising idea, wrecked by the inclusion of a bunch of obligatory kid-movie elements, like an underdog hero and a love interest, which negated the caper-picture atmosphere.

The sequel finds alpha squirrel Surly (voiced, again, by Will Arnett) and his pals living easy on the hoard in the basement of the now closed and abandoned nut shop. When this lifetime supply is destroyed, the gang is forced to return to the hard but character-building work of foraging in the park, as Surly’s love interest squirrel (Katherine Heigl) had been urging all along. But when a greedy Mayor (Bobby Moynihan) decides to turn the park into a shoddy but profitable amusement park, the creatures band together to mount a resistance. 

I’m not suggesting anyone should rush straight to the multiplexes to see Nut Job 2, but for whatever it may be worth, it’s funnier than the original. It has some visual richness—there are scenes which recall everything from Caddyshack to Bill Peet’s wonderful children’s book Farewell to Shady Glade—and some truly crazy old-school cartoon slapstick.

The most memorable character from the first film, a pug voiced by Maya Rudolph, is back again, this time with a love interest (Bobby Cannavale). But the best new element is Mr. Feng, a feral white mouse voiced by Jackie Chan who leads a crack army of martial-artist mice. Toward the end, this rodent collective commandeers a HAZMAT suit, and brings it to wobbly life, something like the mice masquerading as a ghost that torment Sylvester in the classic 1954 Warner Brothers cartoon Claws for Alarm.

Stuff like this bumps Nut Job 2 up a few notches over its predecessor. If you find yourself at a matinee of it with your kid, you may get a few more chuckles than you expected.

Still in theaters:

Atomic Blonde--There's some enjoyment, certainly, in watching the stunning 41-year-old Charlize Theron beat the snot out of skeevy-looking guys. And you can get your fill of this pleasure from this espionage thriller, set in Berlin in 1989, against the backdrop of The Wall coming down. There are lots of fight scenes, intricately choreographed, superbly shot, and performed with a percussive, grunting-and-groaning violence by Theron and the heavies assaulting her, and these sequences go on for a long, long time. 

They often feel like fights in a stage play, with the actors "selling" their highly telegraphed moves with loud vocalizations. The combatants slow down as the fights progress and they get increasingly tired and injured. They're left bloody and dirty and scarred, and our heroine is forced to take ice baths to revive herself afterwards.

This is not to say, of course, that the action in this film is really much more plausible than that in any Bond or Jackie Chan movie. It's just stylized in a different way, and after a while the brutality of it becomes funny--you wonder what makes these people so doggedly determined to kill each other, what could possibly inspire such loyalty and commitment in the face of such savage punishment. 

But it is fun to watch. Many of the film's brawls and stalkings are ingeniously edited to '80s techno-pop hits, Bowie and Falco and Nena and the like, and as with the '70s stuff in the Guardians of the Galaxy flicks, it's a terrific, nostalgic playlist.

Theron plays Lorraine, sent by MI6 to investigate the murder of a British spy just as the East German government is unraveling, and to recover the McGuffin he was chasing, some sort of list that could restart the Cold War. This allows Theron to be spectacularly showcased, both in terms of her physical abandon and her nicotine and Stoli-charged ‘80s glamour. But there’s nothing especially distinctive about Lorraine as a character, and while I didn’t particularly notice any deficiencies in her British accent, the person with whom I saw the film did. 

The star, the fights and the music have to hold us through a story that's both complicated and somehow uninvolving. Lorraine's bosses tell her to trust no one, including Their Man in Berlin (James McAvoy). Other shady sorts include Sofia Boutella as a neophyte French operative, John Goodman as a CIA man, Til Schweiger as a contact in a watch shop, Eddie Marsan as the Soviet asset they're trying to smuggle into West Berlin, and Toby Jones and James Faulkner as the British Intelligence honchos.

That cast is a game and capable bunch, clearly, but the script, adapted from a graphic novel, doesn't release their full potential. And the director, stunt unit specialist David Leitch, doesn't find a way to unwind the plot twists coherently. The movie feels overlong to no notable benefit; stretches of it are entertaining, but it's ultimately unsatisfying.

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