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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Atomic Blonde



Atomic Blonde stole half the music from my iPod and built an action film where Charlize Theron kills a bunch of assassins in Cold War Berlin set to the tracks. This film in seemingly made for me, except for having a workable screenplay that isn't confounding. Well, you can't have everything. Sporting the same spotty British accent she had in season 3 of Arrested Development (for reasons!), Theron plays an MI6 agent sent to Berlin to retrieve a List of deep cover operatives on both sides of the Iron Curtain. She picked an opportune time to visit East and West Berlin; it's November 1989, the Berlin Wall is about to fall, and we're a year away from Jesus Jones writing "Right Here, Right Now" about it (that song isn't on the soundtrack, but New Order, Nena, and David Bowie are, and it's grand). 

Even as Charlize narrates how the whole mission went sideways to two old dudes, her MI6 supervisor Toby Jones and a CIA guy who's also in the room for some reason, John Goodman, we can sense all is not as it seems, though the film's excess of style provides constant, worthy distraction. As soon as Charlize lands in West Berlin, she's the target of Russian assassins who know who she is and why she's in town. She makes contact with a perfectly skeevy James McAvoy, the head of Berlin Station, who's gone into business for himself and selling Jack Daniels and counterfeit Jordach jeans to both sides of the Iron Curtain. She also has sexy time with her own Bond Girl, a hopelessly naive French agent played by Sofia Boutella. Boutella is very well serviced by Charlize in her hotel room but very poorly serviced by the screenplay, which makes her do the one dumb thing that of course gets her murdered Corleone-style. 

In the film's centerpiece action spectacle, Charlize tries to smuggle a defecting Stasi officer played by Eddie Marsan to the West when she's betrayed by McAvoy. The Russians come after Charlize full throttle and Charlize engages them in fight sequences more brutal and immediate than anything we've seen even in a Jason Bourne movie. The action sequences are truly extraordinary, all of it set to 80s New Wave music so loud it feels like Charlize is punching you right in the ear in between beating the crap out of Soviets. Not that Charlize doesn't take a licking herself. Even James Bond having his balls literally whacked in Casino Royale didn't have it as tough as Charlize does.

The whole time she's chasing after the List, Charlize is also supposed to be after Satchel, a mysterious double agent whose identity the movie wants us to believe is McAvoy. However, to those paying attention, especially when McAvoy all but announces it's really Charlize, it comes as no surprise that Satchel is really Charlize. She's also not really British (that's not as shocking - that accent fools no one, except the Brits in the movie). Does any of it make sense? Does it matter? Kind of, yeah. But you came to see Charlize kill stylishly kill people, you got your money's worth, move along and don't ask so many questions.

Director David Leitch, who resurrected Keanu Reeves as an action hero in John Wick, works his same brand of eye-popping, violent splendor on Theron. There's no doubt whatsoever that if placed in the same room with Bond, Bourne and Wick, she'd win the fight and kick them all in their dicks. Theron apparently did most of her own stunts. And it shows. The first time we see Theron is days after the events of Atomic Blonde, as she soothes her bruised, scarred, and battered body in a tub of water and ice cubes. Fellas (and some ladies), if you didn't want to drink Charlize's bathwater before, you do now.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Lady MacBeth



"She is a disease!" rasps Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), the hapless, beguiled groundskeeper, when he fingers his lover Katherine (Florence Pugh) as a murderess most foul at the conclusion of director William Oldroyd's maliciously spellbinding Lady MacBeth. Based upon the novel "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" by Nikolai Leskov and not something some guy named Shakespeare wrote, Katherine, the "heroine" of this sordid, bloody tale of murder in the manor is Lady MacBeth in kindred spirit only. Kindred spirit by means of body count.

Pugh delivers an increasingly unnerving and mesmerizing performance as Katherine, who is sold along with her parcel of land to a loveless marriage. Her sole duty in this arrangement is to provide an heir; otherwise she can shut up and be part of the furniture for all anyone cares. The extent of her new husband Alexander's (Paul Hilton) willingness to consummate their marriage is to make Katherine disrobe and then turn and face the wall like she's in the shack of the Blair Witch. Then he hits the hay, apparently satisfied.

Katherine, however, is not satisfied by her exceedingly vacuous life of being wrenched into a corset and then sitting silently for hours in an empty house in Northern England. She yearns to make her own decisions and do what she wants. She has simple desires: a little sex, for starters. Oh, and to be rid of her husband and his cruel, domineering father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who also hate each other. When both men depart on separate business trips, Katherine decides she rather likes being the sole lady of the manor, and starts laying down plans to make this arrangement permanent. Katherine's behavior unfolds haphazardly and with real malevolence she feels is justified, regardless.

Sebastian the groundskeeper thinks he's rather cleverly seduced Lady Katherine when she starts taking him to bed every night, but the poor sod is in way over his head. When Boris returns from his business trip, having heard all about Katherine spreading her legs for the hired help, he beats and imprisons Sebastian. Katherine has never seen a Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons, but her revenge would fit right into any episode when she decides to start killing to eliminate her impediments. By the time Katherine's done, her body count is very impressive: two men, a child, and even a horse. The horse was especially hilarious; Katherine had never shot a rife before, and the kickback flings her backwards like she's a cartoon character. 

All's well that ends well for Katherine. It's quite a body count for a bewitchingly ruthless young lady.  Thing's don't go quite as well for Sebastian, who is racked with guilt and has the temerity to betray Katherine. His reward for confessing is being hauled off to the hoosegow, along with "his accomplice" Anna (Naomi Ackie), the hapless maid who goes mute from all ghastly murder she's had to clean up after. Poor Anna; she's the most befuddled domestic servant in a movie since Harry Osborn's butler in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy: "I've seen a lot of strange things in this house, sir!"

Friday, July 7, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming



Welcome home, Iron Man! We missed you! Oh shit. Wait. Let me start over: Welcome home, Spidey! We missed you! (There. Do you think Mr. Stark noticed, Blog Lady?)

For most True Believers and Web Heads, it's been 13 years since we had fun watching a Spider-Man movie. Director Jon Watts' Spider-Man: Homecoming, the loving product of six writers and the Marvel-Sony Alliance, brings the Amazing Spider-Man home to the Marvel Cinematic Universe where he belongs - and where the fun is. No longer isolated away from his superhero playmates in his own universe where he toils and suffers as its only superhero, Homecoming shows us a Peter Parker the way he was originally conceived by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko: as a high school kid growing up in Queens, New York in a world where the Avengers exists and he can interact with them. Keen to not make the mistakes of its five predecessors starring two other Spider-Men, Homecoming goes out of its way (to Washington, DC, even) to show us a Spidey doing things and fighting bad guys we've never seen before. Hopefully, Mr. Stark is impressed.

Homecoming amusingly catches us up with how Peter Parker (Tom Holland), a la his own web vlog, was recruited by Tony Stark to fight on his behalf in last year's Captain America: Civil War. We see a different side of the conflict between #TeamCap and #TeamIronMan in Berlin; through the wide-eyed excitement and naivete of the young Spider-Man. For a 15 year old kid who doesn't have a driver's license and had never left the country, being flown around on Tony Stark's private plane (no stripper pole this time) was exciting and intoxicating. No wonder upon returning home to Queens, his normal life of being the smartest sophomore at Midtown Technical High School feels lacking. Peter can't wait to blow out of those halls, don his brand new StarkTech suit, and right wrongs (and get yelled at a lot) as the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man (catchphrase coined and trademarked by Tony Stark, thank you very much). Peter also can't wait to report his every activity to Tony's stressed out right hand man Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), hoping he gets the call to hang out with the Avengers. The waiting is the hardest part, so the song goes.

Holland is a Peter like never before; the youngest, brashest, funniest Spider-Man we ever did see. His sense of duty to do the right thing and help out the little guy is endearingly intact. His motivations are unlike any previous iteration of Spider-Man in a movie: Homecoming, to it's credit, only references Spider-Man's famous origin in the briefest way, and we are not subjected to seeing Uncle Ben shot and the pathos that ensues, for the third time in a decade in a half. Every one knows how Peter becomes Spider-Man. What's interesting is what's lost when the Uncle Ben is thrown out with the bathwater: the reaffirmation that Peter does what he does because of the lesson that "with great power comes great responsibility." Peter articulated a version of this to Tony Stark in Civil War, which is why Tony brought him on board. In Berlin, Peter's motivation to fight was "to impress Mr. Stark." In Homecoming, that hasn't changed at all. Peter's sole goal is to shed his humdrum life and become an Avenger. Slinging webs and fighting crime on the ground are just his training wheels, but he needs that training more than he knows.

In his well-meaning blunders and haphazard investigation into a crime wave involving stolen alien tech in Queens, Peter discovers a weapons trafficking operation run by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton). Toomes ran a salvaging operation to clean up New York City after the battle seen in the finale of the first Avengers movie, but Stark took his living away from him by establishing his own Damage Control operation through the government. Toomes began stealing technology and scrap left in the wake of the Avengers' many battles (parts of Ultron in Solokvia, weaponry from the Triskelion in DC, etc.), refurbishing the scrap as weapons, and selling them to the black market. In his way, he's as industrious as Tony Stark, if his personal accumulated wealth is more modest by comparison, and Toomes has his own winged flying suit, making him the Vulture (no one calls him that). Toomes even has his own evil Avengers: a group of criminals like the Shocker (Bokeem Woodbine), the Tinkerer (Michael Chernus), and the Scorpion (Michael Mando), updating Spidey's rogue's gallery we haven't seen yet in the movies from the original comics. Unlike Stark, Toomes is a family man, which, in the third act, suddenly makes the Vulture's issues with Spider-Man a lot more personal.

Peter's explanations for his disappearances and unexplained absences is his "Stark Internship," a sly shorthand for "Peter is doing a lot of stuff Iron Man does." As a 15 year old Millennial (or whatever Peter's generation, born after 9/11, is called) Peter is comfortable with and dazzled by tech. With StarkTech, he has the best of the best: his new Spider-Man suit comes with flying drones, Iron Man-like Heads Up Display, and its own A.I. (voiced by Jennifer Connelly, a brilliant casting choice as she's the wife of Paul Bettany, who once voiced Iron Man's A.I. Jarvis and graduated to becoming the Avenger called the Vision). "Suit Lady," or Karen as Peter eventually names her, talks him though his latest exploits and bungles. Peter is never brought so low as when, after disabling the tracker in the suit, his inexperience causes the Staten Island Ferry to be ripped in two, and Iron Man has to save him and scold him. Iron Man saves him twice, actually, and later takes his suit away. Unlike Tony Stark, Peter doesn't need StarkTech to be Spider-Man, and while that's ultimately the point of the movie - Spider-Man learns he isn't Iron Man, doesn't need to be, and his dream of being an Avenger can wait another, oh, 10 months or so according to Marvel's move release schedule - it takes the entire length of Homecoming to reach that conclusion. 

Meanwhile, as Spider-Man tries to ground the Vulture, Iron Man: Homecoming was happening all around him: the Avengers are somehow back in business after Civil War (Spider-Man was to be the newest recruit unveiled to the adoring public) even though the fugitive Captain America (Chris Evans) is "a war criminal," and even Gwyneth Paltrow walks back on as Pepper Potts, her broken relationship with Tony Stark healed magically off screen. As Tony Stark, the recognized kingpin of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Robert Downey, Jr. lords over all his scenes with or without Tom Holland. There are plenty of times, such as when Spider-Man, clad in his original homemade suit, clings to a Stark Jet thousands of feet in the air, and battles for his life against the Vulture, that we end up wondering if Iron Man will come and save him yet again. If Marvel wants to make Iron Man 4, they should just make Iron Man 4. It seems like blasphemy to suggest, but less Tony Stark is more Tony Stark in a Spider-Man movie.

Still, what Spider-Man: Homecoming delivers for most of its running time is the sheer giddy joy of seeing Spider-Man back in action, this time in the Marvel Universe. Peter's high school life and his classic cast of characters from the Lee/Ditko comics are updated into a multiracial gaggle of teens reflective of what a high school in Queens would look like in 2017. There are numerous jokes that land with aplomb, including a callback to the famous kiss in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man that tears the house down. If only Peter took more time to enjoy his school chums like Liz (Laura Harrier), Michelle (Zendaya, criminally underused with a reveal that lands with a "huh?"), and even Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) more. Peter does spend quite a bit of time with his first ever annoying endearing no, annoying sidekick, Ned (Jacob Batalon) - too much time, really. Ned wants to be Peter's "man in the chair" superhero support and Peter doesn't have the heart to tell him his suit already comes with an omniscient A.I. "Suit Lady."

There is pleasingly a Homecoming Dance in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but Peter spends nary a moment at the dance with Liz, the most beautiful girl in school. Despite his schoolboy crush on Liz, this young Peter isn't the romantic Spidey his two predecessors were, and it is nice to see a Spider-Man not pining for Kirsten Dunst or Emma Stone ad nauseam. Besides, there's no time for love, Mr. Stark (though Mr. Stark would very much disagree). There's a lot of laughter, fun and heroics to be had in Spider-Man: Homecoming, a Marvel movie dedicated to showing us a Spider-Man doing things we've never seen Spider-Man do in a movie before, but the main lesson we and Peter take away is that this is Iron Man's world and Spider-Man is living in it.

(Also, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) finds out Peter is Spider-Man at the very end just like how Tony Stark revealed his identity as Iron Man to the world and okay I'm done now see you at Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War. Bye.)

Monday, July 3, 2017

Baby Driver



"How great would it be if your driving brought joy to people's lives?" signs Baby's adoptive father before Baby complies with his wishes and gets a job delivering pizzas. Writer-director Edgar Wright accepts his own challenge with Baby Driver, a breakneck, blisteringly inventive joyride where Wright heists the car heist movie genre and makes it his own. In Baby Driver, Ansel Elgort stars as the titular character, a young wunderkind wheelman for mastermind Kevin Spacey. A car accident that ophaned young Elgort left him with tinnitus; a permanent ringing in his ears, which he subsumes with music from a fleet of iPods in his collection. (Baby Driver is, like James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, fueled to its benefit by the director's personal music collection.) Behind the wheel, Baby is good enough to join Vin Diesel's Fast and the Furious family, and he just might if the Fast Fam ever pulled a heist in Atlanta.

Baby is a curious creature who provokes repeated explanation for the bank robbers he carts around, including Jon Bernthal, Flea, Eiza Gonzalez, and Jon Hamm. Wright nigh-overdoses on style early on, with a frankly unbelievable opening car chase followed by a triumphant Elgort dancing around the city streets, as if performing in a personal musical. Thankfully, necessary gravitas is provided by Jamie Foxx, a steely powder keg of violence who doesn't like or trust Elgort. He doesn't like or trust anyone, actually, but Elgort especially rankles him, no matter how much anyone vouches for him. Elgort himself is in Spacey's thrall and working off a debt; one last job doesn't ever mean one last job in the world of crime, which Elgort learns to his chagrin.

It turns out Elgort has a lot to protect, and not just his secret hobby of recording everyone he meets and remixing their voices. He has an aforementioned deaf elderly foster father, and he has a girl he loves, Lily James, the lovely waitress at his favorite diner, though this is a curiously chaste love affair; not quite the sexually charged relationship Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette had in True Romance. James is a conveniently free spirit; she's unattached and dreams of a future that's an endless road trip of adventure. It's a happy coincidence she meets just the right Baby Driver, but also unfortunate that despite his best efforts to shield her from the nature of his work ("You chauffeur important people?"), especially when Foxx suspects just why Elgort is so resistant to pull over at that particular diner, the bad people in Baby's lives come right to her table and order four Cokes.

Wright pulls off a neat trick of creating sympathy for a lead who's monosyllabic and seemingly impenetrable. Baby might be a gifted getaway driver ensconced in a life of crime, but he's got a streak of compassion running through him. Foxx and Hamm (each with a surname containing an extra consonant) take bravura turns as the heavy of the piece, each having a serious bone to pick with Baby, but the kid is good and ends up being too good for them. There's a moment, during a deadly car chase and shoot out with Hamm in a parking garage, where Baby pulls the lever on James' seat, putting it all the way to recline so that Hamm's bullets miss her. With that one heroic move, any lingering doubt as to the quality of Baby's character dissipates. This kid has style - beyond how his black and white jacket is an obvious ode to Han Solo - and he's worth rooting for. That goes double for Wright, who, after cult sensations Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, finally has a breakthrough film that should propel his long-admired talent to the Hollywood big leagues. Wright should gun the engine and never look back.

The Beguiled



In Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled, Colin Farrell plays a lobster a rooster in a henhouse. It's 1864, four years into the Civil War, and in battle-torn Virginia, young Oona Lawrence finds Farrell injured in the woods. He's a Union soldier - an enemy combatant - but his leg is badly wounded and he's desperate. Christian charity demands Farrell be rescued; he becomes the unwilling house guest of Nicole Kidman, who runs a school for girls. The presence of Farrell, who quickly recovers and finds ways to make himself useful so he can be invited to stay, upends the careful but combustible order of this house of young women of immaculate repute. There is an electric spark of forbidden sex in the air with this randy soldier recuperating in the music room.

As Kidman, an eternally forlorn Kirsten Dunst, who is the second oldest woman at the school, and their five young charges, including Elle Fanning, fret and debate about their house guest, we wonder what Farrell's true intentions are. No doubt, he has no intention of returning to the war. He's brazen in his attempts to wile Kidman and especially Dunst, whom he seems to take the biggest shine to - and who hesitantly reciprocates the attraction. Meanwhile, Fanning proves herself as brazen as Farrell; she sneaks kisses with Farrell and secretly invites him into her room. When Dunst catches them, her reaction is devastating. She pushes Farrell down the stairs, breaking his injured leg beyond repair. Kidman utters the most ghastly line and provokes the biggest laugh in the movie: "Get me the hacksaw and the anatomy book!"

The Beguiled is shot with a painterly beautiful style and is directed with precision and restraint by Coppola. The performances are equally precise and restrained and justly so: we sense the undercurrent of farce in this parlor drama. The actors seem just a careful held breath away from exploding in giggles and hysterics at moments like Farrell hobbling around on crutches, holding all the women hostage at gunpoint. It doesn't occur to the women that they could easily overpower Farrell, especially in his diminished state, no matter how crazy he acts. Farrell on crutches suddenly develops B-movie killer abililies; he can suddenly appear from out of frame, and he can keep pace with and catch Lawrence, who can run like a sprite. It's ultimately no surprise that the women of The Beguiled come to the decision that they have to get rid of this guy. Almost missing from the final shot is a fade to an iris with the Looney Tunes theme playing -- "That's all, folks!"