Atomic Blonde

Wonder Woman created a considerable buzz, becoming the highest grossing female-directed movie of all time. I started thinking about women’s role in film, and how I’m partial to movies that feature ass-kicking women. I probably enjoy movies like Kill Bill and Atomic Blonde because they are a novelty, still. It’s somewhat atypical for a woman to carry an action film, and perhaps that should change. In Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) brawls her way through the streets of Berlin, leaving bloodied foes in her wake and proving every bit as capable as her male counterparts. Although Theron was impressive in the role (she did her own stunts), Atomic Blonde had more style than substance, and it was not as original as some critics would have you believe.

Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 officer tasked with traveling to Berlin to investigate the death of another spy. The comrade in question was in possession of a covert list of spies and double agents. Set in 1989, the movie takes place in the waning days of The Cold War. Upon arriving in Berlin, Lorraine is met by David Percival (James McAvoy, Split), her handler and point person. He’s a wild card, his unconventional appearance fitting perfectly with the rebellious, revolutionary spirit of the city. Lorraine is stoic, dispassionate and efficient, traits that serve her well in her profession. She brings those considerable skills to bear in pursuit of an asset called Spyglass (Eddie Marsan, Ray Donovan), an informant privy to the list’s contents.

As the movie progresses, Lorraine dispatches adversaries with an impressive ferocity. She takes her fair share of lumps too, one stairwell scene particularly brutal. I tip my hat to Theron, who immersed herself in the role by training relentlessly in preparation and performing her own stunts. The film’s strengths were its action, cinematography, and score. Visually, it was washed out and monochromatic, with intermittent pops of neon color that gave it a sleek, oddly modern look. When Lorraine seduces French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service), the screen is awash in hot pink. When she soaks in an ice bath after a day of beatings, the screen is nearly devoid of color, save for cool blue undertones. I appreciated these visual elements, along with the pulsating New Age soundtrack.

I’ve praised Theron for her commitment to the role, but her performance felt muted. Perhaps that was intentional; maybe she was just supposed to be a detached spy, but I thought her character felt walled off emotionally. Theron is talented and I know she’s got the chops, so I attribute this to some failing of the script, which was unoriginal and confusing. Moreover, the whole ‘missing list of covert operatives’ storyline was hackneyed and silly. The cast is esteemed, including John Goodman (Kong: Skull Island), the aforementioned McAvoy, and Toby Jones (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but they can’t save the source material.

In sum, if you’re big on plot and details, you may not care for Atomic Blonde. However, if you’re game for some entertaining summer fare, I think you’ll be pleased. Theron has enough star power to reel you in, and the film was sexy and arresting, visually. It just wasn’t smart. Some critics are treating Atomic Blonde as the first movie to portray a “female James Bond,” and that’s simply inaccurate. Films like the relatively recent Salt, Point of No Return, and its iconic predecessor La Femme Nikita all come to mind as other examples, with two of these three being vastly superior to Theron’s latest offering.

Grade: B+

 

 

Girls Trip

When I saw the trailer for Girls Trip, I’ll admit, I cringed. I’m not a prude, and I liked the fact that the trailer was basically X-Rated. But when Tiffany Haddish told Jada Pinkett that “you can’t get an infection in your bootyhoole,” that was beyond the pale for me. Nevertheless, I reasoned that if I saw Scarlett Johansson’s craptastic, similarly trite Rough Night, I could support my sisters and see Girls Trip. I told my gals if they wanted to see it, I’d go along. I’m glad I loosened up a bit, because Girls Trip was a cute, heartwarming movie. What it lacked in originality it made up for in the charm, wit and realism of its ensemble cast – particularly the aforementioned Haddish.

Ryan (Regina Hall, When the Bough Breaks), Sasha (Queen Latifah, Ice Age: Collision Course), Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith, Bad Moms) and Dina (Tiffany Haddish, Keanu) are the “Flossy Posse,” a ride-or-die group of friends who formed their clique in college. Understandably, the friendship has waxed and waned over the years, the old gang intermittently marking milestones while coping with emotional slights and rifts along the way. Through divorce, the joy of motherhood, and all the major ups and downs of life, the Flossy Posse has been there for each other. When Ryan, a successful author and empowerment guru has a chance to secure a lucrative new opportunity in New Orleans, she invites her crew to tag along for a girls trip, just like old times. She and husband Stewart (Mike Colter, Luke Cage) are poised to ink a new deal to expand their self-help empire, but their marriage may be showing cracks in its shiny veneer.

The girls are true to form, reliving their glory days and vowing to get “turnt” for the entire weekend, which is set against the backdrop of the annual Essence Music Festival. Lisa is a cougar on the prowl, catching the eye of a handsome young stranger (Kofi Siriboe, Queen Sugar). Ryan is trying to keep up appearances with Stewart, Sasha is fretting over her next scoop for her gossip blog, and Dina is just trying to party. The girls predictably have an assortment of misadventures, including a dance battle, a near brawl, and an absinthe-laced trip. All of these plot points have been done before, but what makes Girls Trip special is its heart. At the risk of sounding corny, this movie just felt real. It didn’t matter that the concept wasn’t original, because these are what my friends look and sound like. Some of the gags were rather gross, but to each her own.

Girls Trip opened against Dunkirk, and it’s the second movie of its type this summer. Despite these odds, it has fared well due in large part to the scene-stealing Tiffany Haddish. It took me a while to embrace her brand of humor, but she’s just adorable. The camaraderie and chemistry amongst the cast infused the movie with warmth and realness, and its authenticity makes it a hit with audiences. Girls Trip perfectly captured the spirit of friendship, and it’s a must-see for you and your homegirls.

Grade: B+

 

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan (Interstellar) is approaching rarefied air, that upper echelon of filmmaking where greatness is expected. With no obvious missteps in his impressive repertoire, his subject matter has been varied yet consistent. When extolling the virtues of film, I often cite its ability to educate and inform rather than merely entertain. In Dunkirk, Nolan masterfully brings to screen a significant but relatively unknown (at least to me) World War II battle. The quintessential auteur, Nolan has given us a beautiful film, both in spirit and aesthetic.

It’s the dawn of World War II and German forces have driven the British (and a few French allies) to the outskirts of Dunkirk, France, pressing them towards the beach along the northern coastline. Approximately 300,000 soldiers are stranded, making easy prey for passing bomber planes or foes approaching by sea. Just as 300 introduced me to the Battle of Thermopylae, Dunkirk educated me on the similarly harrowing Battle of France. That battle would eventually become a rescue and evacuation mission code-named Operation Dynamo. It may seem antithetical to describe a war film as beautiful, but the visual elements of the film were stunning. Nolan’s austere backdrop was captured perfectly on 70 mm film, the wider format adding an extra layer of realism while immersing the viewer.

The film is told from three distinct perspectives, beginning with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British soldier who finds himself stranded at Dunkirk after narrowly escaping from behind enemy lines. The second perspective belongs to civilian Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies) and his sons George and Peter, private citizens courageously responding to their country’s call to action. The third viewpoint is shown from the perspective of two fighter pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy, The Revenant) and Collins (Jack Lowden, England is Mine), who don’t hesitate to enter the fray despite being low on fuel, changing course to head into what seems like sure disaster.

War films represent a diverse genre that I’ve come to appreciate over the years. From Saving Private Ryan to Platoon, the genre has consistently raised questions of morality and explored the psychological consequences of warfare, from the grief at losing a comrade to the ethical questions faced when atrocities are committed in the name of patriotism. Some war films focus on battle where others delve into the impact of war on the human psyche. Dunkirk was unique in its brilliant bifurcation of the narrative, fleshing out each character’s emotional motivation as they converged on the beach in successive heart-stopping intervals. War films often show strength in the form of violence or brute force, but there is tremendous quiet strength in just surviving. The ability to simply endure is as human a quality as there is, and Nolan captured this beautifully through Tommy and his dogged will live to live.

Nolan is sort of the anti-Tarantino here, utilizing sparse dialogue and relying more on atmosphere and the attendant action of an epic narrative. He showed two sides of the human spirit: one characterized by hope, resilience and valor, the other fraught with a sense of futility and resignation to an inevitable fate. Each act of survival was a minor miracle, and the emotional resonance of the film cannot be denied. Dunkirk was amazing in its portrayal of the human spirit and in its understated visual simplicity. Buoyed by strong performances (including newcomer Harry Styles), deft direction, and incredibly inspiring source material, Dunkirk lives up to the hype and further solidifies Christopher Nolan as one of best filmmakers to emerge in recent memory. Grade: A

War for the Planet of the Apes

I’m usually not a fan of reboots, because most of the time they tarnish the good name of the original. Sometimes we don’t need to bring a film/franchise to a new generation. Sometimes the younger generation should just refer back to the original and learn to appreciate cinematic history. But before you knock me off my high horse as another millennial hater, I can admit that the Planet of the Apes reboot has been pretty solid. The original 1968 film contained a powerful over-arching metaphor in which apes were a proxy for Black and other oppressed people. This latest addition to the rebooted franchise hearkens back to the original with its symbolism and allusion to the darker undercurrents of society.

When we last saw Caesar (Andy Serkis, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), he defeated his nemesis Koba after a bitter act of betrayal. War for the Planet of the Apes, the third installment of the reboot, finds the apes under siege from the military, which is thoroughly outmatched by their simian adversary. I was reminded of some of the better battle scenes in recent memory, and the CGI was A-plus. Throughout the movie I truly cared more about the apes than the humans, all of who displayed abject cruelty and duplicity, save for one child. I appreciated that the plot was completely linear, a straightforward tale of pursuit, of hunter vs. hunted. The apes’ morality was a central theme, and there was a clear dichotomy between man and animal.

Caesar is merciful and just, resorting to violence only when provoked and in defense of his fellow primates. He represents a superior moral archetype, compassionately sparing the lives of captured human hostages, an act of mercy that would have devastating consequences for his family. While the apes traverse the Pacific Northwest in search of a new home, they are hotly pursued by a military faction helmed by a psychotic Woody Harrelson (Now You See Me 2) as The Colonel.

The movie was characterized by a somber, heavy tone, as the director eschewed any emphasis on the human element, instead focusing on the relationships and survival of Caesar and his brethren. While Caesar plots against The Colonel, his fellow apes “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn, Captain Fantastic), Maurice, and Rocket travel to their new home. The powerful character narrative and emotional quotient of the movie made it well worth watching, and my only criticism is that it was surprisingly tragic and bleak. Nevertheless, War for the Planet of the Apes was a compelling movie that drew me in with an emotional storyline and a thought-provoking depiction of humankind’s inherent, persistent tendency towards savagery and oppression of those whom we marginalize as different. Grade: A

 

Baby Driver

I expect fun movies this time of year, and Baby Driver was a great way to beat the heat for two hours. At first blush the movie looked like it was trying too hard, but after checking it out last weekend, I can say that it’s worth the hype: every bit as cool as it looks, a rhythmic and stylish ride. Think Kingsman: The Secret Service meets Drive.

Jamie Foxx (Sleepless) and Kevin Spacey (Nine Lives) are featured alongside newcomer Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) as a criminal outfit of bank robbers. Spacey calls the shots behind the scenes, while the field team executes. He never works with the same team more than once, save for Baby, the one constant, always the getaway driver. So nicknamed for his limited speaking, Baby is a reluctant wheelman, indebted to Doc (Spacey) until he works off what he owes.

Sometimes the best way to introduce a character is to throw the audience right into their world. Baby Driver begins with Baby behind the wheel, waiting animatedly while his three cohorts (Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez) pull a heist. I’m not saying this opening scene should be considered alongside the great car chases/escapes like those in Ronin or The Italian Job, but Baby’s wheelwork was breathtaking. I was on the edge of my seat as he took turns at ridiculous speeds, cutting his wheel on a dime, his skills a virtual thing of beauty.

I hadn’t figured this cinematic outing would make for a lesson in filmmaking, but I gained a deeper appreciation for score and musicality. Elgort glided effortlessly across the screen like a hipster Gene Kelly, adding a whimsical flair to an otherwise dangerous business. The movie pulsated with sound and music, nearly elevating the aural component on par with the characters. Music was an integral part of the movie, as Baby listens 24/7 to drown out the noise in his ears. We might affectionately dub a tune part of the soundtrack of our life, but Baby really means it, carefully mining his iPod for the perfect song for even the most mundane tasks.

Baby made for an interesting protagonist, a sort of criminal prodigy impervious to the provocations of others. His demeanor is irksome to the rest of the team, as they mistake his unassuming aloofness for superiority, but Baby is just good at what he does. Another highlight of the movie was the burgeoning relationship between Baby and Debora (Lily James, Burnt, Downton Abbey), a waitress at the local diner who catches both his eye and his ears with her own musicality. Their earnest and pure love story had its own mini-soundtrack, endearing in its own right.

I was on Twitter today and saw that Anthony Bourdain bizarrely tweeted ‘Fuck Baby Driver.’ I don’t understand the vitriol. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, but that doesn’t mean it is without merit. Like most of its ilk, it became mired in absurdity by the third act, but overall I still found it enjoyable. Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey’s considerable talents were not utilized here, as both actors were constrained by their characters, turning in less than memorable performances. The real stars of the film are its star-crossed leads Elgort and James, and director Edgar Wright (The World’s End). Wright’s direction, his timing and physical placement of action to coincide with the rhythm of the score, was brilliant. He created an interesting character and put a fresh spin on familiar themes by relying on the magnetism and chemistry of the two leads. Purists can scoff away, but Baby Driver didn’t disappoint. Grade: B+

Rough Night

If I want to see a movie, I’m going to see it no matter what – I’m not dissuaded by negative word of mouth. I’ve gone to see movies that I knew would be awful, like Soul Plane. When I saw the trailer for Rough Night, it struck me as a knock-off of Bridesmaids and very similar to the forthcoming Girls Trip. However, I still wanted to see it despite it seeming derivative. Moreover, I like Scarlett Johansson (Ghost in the Shell) and Zoe Kravitz, (Mad Max: Fury Road), who star alongside Jillian Bell (Fist Fight), Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters), and Ilana Glazer (The Night Before) as a group of girlfriends reuniting for their friend Jess’ (Johansson) bachelorette party in Miami.

Once a hard-partying co-ed, Jess is now an uptight political candidate, a far cry from former beer pong champion. Alice is a teacher, Blair is a wealthy divorcee and mother, and Frankie has become one of those “crunchy,” annoying social justice warrior types. Jess’ fiancé Peter (Paul Downs, Broad City) is a nice guy, but he is about as exciting as a jar of mayonnaise. Alice is especially close with Jess, spearheading their weekend shenanigans. Rounding out the bunch is Jess’ Aussie pal Pippa, amusingly played by Kate McKinnon.

Writer Lucia Aniello borrowed a page from Bridesmaids, with Alice as the friend who is jealous of her best friend’s new buddy, in a familiar subplot. The crew gets wasted throughout the weekend, as emotions bubble to the surface. Frankie is secretly in love with one of the gang, while Alice and Jess have some unresolved issues that have cropped up in recent years. Friendships evolve, they wax and wane as we mature and dynamics change. The movie touched on the ways in which friends can become distant, but find their way home to each other in the end. The camaraderie and bond of friendship strengthened the movie, but make no mistake: this movie is best viewed at home on the sofa in the absence of sobriety.

Rough Night is not a movie to be taken seriously. It’s probably a good move for the likes of McKinnon, but I imagine Johansson was just bored and maybe thought this would be a fun movie to make. The movie’s major plot point involving a would-be stripper was nothing short of ridiculous. Like, Weekend at Bernie’s levels of stupidity – but without the charm. Demi Moore (Margin Call) makes a cameo, but it only serves to heighten the absurdity of it all. I knew it wouldn’t be good, but I didn’t mind paying the five. You’ve been warned! Grade: C

Wonder Woman

When a film is highly anticipated, it can become bigger than itself. Wonder Woman is more than just another comic blockbuster. It offers a rare opportunity for women to become fangirls for something besides a clichéd rom-com or chick flick like 50 Shades or Magic Mike. There’s a comic book movie for US and it feels legit, not like a placating watered-down gimmick. Marvel is more consistent, but score one for DC Comics, because Wonder Woman is a winner.

Wonder Woman aka Diana Prince was born Diana, Princess of Themyscira. Themyscira is home to the Amazon people, a class of warrior women created by Zeus. Not quite human, but not exactly gods, the Amazons are superior physical and intellectual beings. Diana is chief among them, portrayed wonderfully by Gal Gadot (Triple 9). It was refreshing to watch these warrior women train in hand-to-hand combat with nary a man in sight. So much of what we as women do (consciously and subconsciously) is for the male gaze, but Amazons had no such constraints. Diana’s isolation from ordinary society rendered her immune from the trappings of conventional patriarchy and paternalism. The iconic character is the brainchild of writer and psychiatrist William Marston, who wanted to craft a hero modeled after feminists of the day. Diana is compelling, an inadvertent feminist, a woman who doesn’t know she’s supposed to be inferior. Equal to a man? She doesn’t even know any men; they are not within her frame of reference. When she finally meets a man in Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, Star Trek Beyond), he’s the one who needs saving – not her.

As a child, Diana’s mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielson, The Runner) regaled her with tales of the gods, particularly Zeus and Ares, god of war. She knew that Ares would return to avenge his defeat at Zeus’ hands, and that wherever Ares was found; conflict and war were sure to follow. So when Steve crashes on Themyscira after being shot down by German fighter pilots (the movie is set largely during WWII), Diana feels compelled to join him in battle, as surely Ares is to blame. Diana leaves “paradise island,” never to return. In this iconic moment she sets on the path that would give her to the world, a hero for all. Steve explains that they must stop one General Ludendorff (Danny Huston, Big Eyes) from unleashing poison gas on the populous, and by all appearances it sounds like Ludendorff and Ares are one and the same. The movie follows Diana, Steve and a ragtag group he cobbles together, as they hunt Ludendorff and his accomplice, the sinister Dr. Maru.

Diana is a feminist, not by design but by nature. When she accompanies Steve to plead his case to his superiors for military action, it never occurs to her that she literally doesn’t belong in the room. She’s not a trailblazer; she simply knows no other way of being. The fish-out-of-water trope is a familiar one, but it didn’t seem like a hackneyed device here, rather it was a vehicle by which the character challenged convention. Likewise, Diana is beautiful, but oblivious to whatever that means. She doesn’t need to rely on her beauty to disarm a man, because she can just kick his ass without all the pretense. It’s always a good psychological exercise to question oneself, and I liked the way the character challenged our default ways of thinking with refreshing sensibilities.

Few films are flawless, and neither is Wonder Woman. Most superhero movies have a degree of predictability and campiness, so there’s that. I also thought some of the dialogue was a bit cringe-worthy at times, especially the obligatory scene where Diana gets a glimpse of Steve’s anatomy *insert size joke here* Furthermore, the action scenes were effective, but I could’ve done without all the slow-mo freeze frame type of shots. It’s like the director wanted to signal to the audience that something cool was about to happen instead of just letting it happen.

I don’t usually do the whole “Girl Power” thing because more often than not it reads as corny. But this movie made me feel strong and inspired, and I was not alone. The women next to me in the theater were on their second showing. The movie marks the highest grossing film with a woman director, and I think that’s just great. Maybe one day these types of accomplishments won’t be considered noteworthy, but for now I’m just glad girls have a hero to call their own. Grade: A