What Could ‘Atomic Blonde’ Learn From TV

Lorraine watching coffins put in plane
Credit: Universal Pictures/screenshot

It’s been a while since I felt as thoroughly alienated by a film as I did while watching Atomic Blonde. For transparency’s sake, I admit that David Leitch’s first solo feature rubbed me the wrong way from the moment I first saw the trailer, even though a pop music-inflected, Cold War-set spy thriller sounds like it should be right up my alley. I try to avoid seeing movies that I feel predisposed to dislike in theaters, but it was a lazy Friday afternoon that had me in the mood for some dumb escapism, so I decided to give it a shot.

Unfortunately, the actual movie confirmed the misgivings I’d had from the trailer instead of alleviating them. There are a lot of issues to unpack here – not least of which is its attempt to pass off the objectification of women as empowerment – but the most crucial flaw might be the humdrum action scenes (a.k.a. the whole reason Atomic Blonde exists).

While I wouldn’t presume to know more about hand-to-hand combat than a director with more than 80 stunt credits to his name, it turns out there’s a difference between knowing how to stage a fight and being able to effectively incorporate that fight into a story. Even the most impressive set piece – a bruising marathon set in a stairwell that had people in my theater audibly cringing – ultimately falls flat, because it means nothing, contributing neither to the plot nor to our understanding of Charlize Theron’s paper-thin heroine. Swap it with any of the other action scenes, and the switch would have little discernable effect on the narrative. Sure, Leitch’s decision to film in a single unbroken take highlights the toll on the actors’ bodies, a rare sight in this age of indestructible superheroes. But gauging the quality of an action scene on its brutality alone is like judging horror solely by how likely it is to give you nightmares – it turns art into a dare, an endurance test.

In other words, no matter how flashy or physically demanding an action sequence is, the punches won’t leave a mark unless there’s some weight behind them. Continue reading

‘The Beguiled’ Serves Up Pristine Southern Hospitality Laced With Acid

Women gathered around harpsichord
Credit: Focus Features/screenshot

If there’s one message to be taken away from the movies I’ve seen so far this year, it is that the monster is inside the house. Starting with Chris’s nightmare visit with his girlfriend’s family in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, one 2017 film after another has constructed a seemingly stable status quo only to slowly unveil some dark, corrosive truth at its core. External threats are so last decade; now, humanity prefers to destroy itself from inside out. Even the optimistic Wonder Woman couldn’t avoid the nagging fear that we’ve brought about our own demise, and not just because it featured a literal invasion of paradise.

Rotting houses have never been so tastefully appointed as in The Beguiled, which might be the Platonic ideal of a Sofia Coppola movie. The director of The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette smoothly grafts her distinctive yet polarizing style onto Don Siegel’s enjoyably trashy 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle. While the basic plot survives the nearly five-decade-long transition intact, gone are the psychosexual thriller’s grislier aspects, including an incest subplot and extended amputation scene. Instead, Coppola offers up a meticulously contrived capsule of Civil War-era Virginia that’s as polished and delicate as one of the Farnsworth Seminary’s china bowls.

But, as Corporal John McBurney eventually learns, those fragile bowls can hold some pretty nasty surprises. Though anyone looking for the campy, delicious suspense suggested by the trailers will likely leave disappointed, The Beguiled succeeds by doing what any remake worth its salt needs to do, but few actually manage: it takes a new approach to reexamine the familiar and, in doing so, creates something that fascinates all on its own. Continue reading

My 2017 Emmy Wish List

Emmy nominations time is upon us. With the official announcement scheduled for July 13, I have my fingers crossed once again in the hopes that Television Academy voters will expand beyond their usual House of Cards/Modern Family purview. There’s nothing wrong with those series, but the 2016-2017 TV season gifted viewers with an eclectic mix of talent, genres, and styles, and it would be a shame if the medium’s preeminent awards body failed to recognize that diversity.

In fact, there was so much good TV this past year that it genuinely pains me to leave so many of my favorites off this list, from solid contenders like Westworld (a safe bet to fill the hole left by Game of Thrones) and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (could the top comedy category finally be in reach after one of its strongest seasons yet?) to total longshots like Arrow, Colony, Preacher, and Bojack Horseman.

After much mental hand-wringing and hair-pulling, I narrowed my “For Your Consideration” list down to 11 picks. If any of these people and shows get their names called, I will do a happy dance.

Drama

Halt and Catch Fire for Outstanding Drama Series. Though Halt and Catch Fire aired its third season finale in October, no show in the intervening seven months managed to surpass the 10 episodes of excellence put forth by showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers. The grungy-cool tech drama has always been bolder than its unflashy yet impeccable staging might suggest, but a relocation to San Francisco for a season-long exploration of people’s conflicting desires for safety and connection sharpened the show’s creative vision. With unflinching honesty and empathy, season three embraced Joe, Cameron and company at their most ambitious, stubborn, destructive, and vulnerable as they hurtled toward inevitable tragedy and heartbreak.

Halt and Catch Fire S3E8_Joe in front of Golden Gate bridge
FYC: “You Are Not Safe” for Outstanding Cinematography (credit: AMC Studios/screenshot)

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The Modest Miracles of ‘Wonder Woman’

Diana coming out of trench
Credit: Warner Bros/screenshot

I fell in love with Wonder Woman the moment I laid eyes on it. Patty Jenkins’s new film, her first since the Oscar-winning yet still underappreciated gem that was Monster, opens with a shot of Earth from outer space. The image of our planet encased in white clouds swirling over splashes of greens and blues is familiar, but its usage in this context spoke volumes. The first live-action movie ever centered on the most iconic female superhero of all time begins not on an adrenaline-pumping action set piece, as one might expect given the genre, but with all of humanity in its view. When Gal Gadot calls Earth “this beautiful world” in a swoon-worthy caress of a voice, you actually believe her.

Expectations can be dangerous things. Not only do they often set the stage for disappointment, they can also distort our perspective, making us lose sight of an object or person’s true value in favor of projected demands and fantasies. Given the character’s history and cultural status, Wonder Woman is the rare blockbuster worthy of the feverish anticipation that awaited its release, the hopes of millions of fans and the affirmation of an entire gender staked on its success. Ludicrous as it may be to burden one movie with upending years of entrenched misogyny, that pressure was inevitable for the first female-led and female-directed entry in the superhero genre since Marvel launched its cinematic universe.

So, it’s tempting to applaud Wonder Woman for what it symbolizes, but that would do a disservice to the actual movie, which is an intelligent, sprawling, flawed, electrifying pleasure. The miracle isn’t that Wonder Woman exists; it’s that it turned out to be this damn good. Continue reading

This Too Shall Pass: A Farewell to ‘The Leftovers’

The Leftovers S2E3_Tommy who wants a hug
I’m going to need a hug after this (Credit: HBO/screenshot)

The end is near. Those four words, so simple when broken down into individual components, become loaded with meaning when strung together. Depending on the context, the phrase can offer relief – from a difficult task, from tedium, from agony – or spell doom, a harsh reminder of our own mortality and the impermanence of all things. It can be a promise or a warning.

Seemingly incompatible truths that nonetheless manage to coexist define The Leftovers, an apocalyptic soul search steeped equally in hope and despair. Anyone looking for definitive explanations or pat narratives will be sorely disappointed by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s show, which follows what happens after 2 percent of the world’s population vanishes. Refusing to reduce the messiness of reality to easily digested messages, The Leftovers has never been content to merely comfort or wallow in its exploration of grief. It instead shifts between catharsis and ambiguity as it grapples with the effects of trauma, crises of faith and identity, and the urgent yet unanswerable question of what it means to be human and alive.

For all the bold thematic ambitions and dense symbolism, the real power of The Leftovers comes from its ability to convert its characters’ existential angst into a genuinely transcendent emotional experience. Three seasons in, Kevin Garvey, Nora Durst, and the rest remain as unknowable as ever, their motives often a mystery even to themselves. Yet, their struggles and foibles also feel unnervingly familiar, rendered with honesty and perceptiveness by one of the greatest assemblies of writers, directors, and actors to ever grace TV. I may not always be able to explain why people on this show do what they do, but boy, do I understand them. Continue reading

‘Their Finest’ and ‘Free Fire’ Wage War With Opposite Results

At first glance, Their Finest and Free Fire have little in common beyond the preponderance of white Brits in their ensemble casts. The former follows the production of a fictional World War II propaganda film designed to restore confidence in Britain’s war effort after the infamous Dunkirk evacuation. The latter revolves around a weapons deal gone awry, its action confined Reservoir Dogs-style to a nondescript warehouse where characters exchange bullets and f-bombs in equal measure.

Despite these drastic differences in plot and style, however, the two movies share a similar central concern: the meaning (or lack thereof) of violence. While their contrasting approaches to tackling this topic both seem valid on paper, the heartfelt restraint displayed by Their Finest ultimately proves to be more compelling than Free Fire’s tasteless anarchy.

“It’s never for anything”

Their Finest_Catrin and Phyl walking down hall
Credit: BBC Films/Gemma Arterton Online

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Loss Meets Wish Fulfillment in Dreamy ‘Your Name’

Mitsuha watching comet split
Credit: FUNimation/screenshot

The best time travel stories are also ghost stories. They deal with time travel not just as an intellectual concept, with all the implied logical paradoxes and moral, would-you-kill-baby-Hitler conundrums, but as a sentimental one. After all, memory is a form of time travel, as are photography and film. To see into the past, we have only to look at the night sky.

Your Name is one of those stories. Released in 2016 in its native Japan and on Apr. 7 in the U.S., Makoto Shinkai’s fantasy/romance anime begins as an entertaining but largely familiar comedy in the vein of such high-concept, be-careful-what-you-wish-for classics as Groundhog Day or Big, only with more gags about gender roles. But roughly halfway through, the film transforms into something much stranger and more mournful, revealing that its two body-swapping leads exist in separate timelines, not as contemporaries as both characters and audiences assumed. As with last year’s Arrival, this twist works because it re-contextualizes everything that came before, rather than undermining it. What was once a coming-of-age tale about carving out one’s identity becomes an expression of the ways in which the past reverberates into the present, like a fallen leaf sending out ripples through a pond. Continue reading