Today in Movie History: June 3

As Billy Wilder comedies go, The Seven Year Itch never packed the punch of, say, Some Like It Hot or The Apartment. It’s amusing enough, but the Hays Code pulled the teeth from the Broadway play on which it was based, about a married man tempted by… well shit, by Marilyn Freaking Monroe. That leaves it minor Wilder at best, save for that iconic moment when Monroe stands above the subway grate. The Seven Year Itch opened today in 1955.

Back in 1983, the whole “personal computer” thing was at best weird and at worst actively frightening. Naturally, Hollywood happily exploited our fears with a series of “the computer is trying to kill you” movies that today seem almost quaint. One of the best of them was John Badham’s WarGames, in which a dippy high school hacker almost starts World War III by tapping into NORAD’s defense system when all he was looking for was a few video games. It doesn’t hold up as a thriller, but as a nostalgic throwback, it’s well made and surprisingly fun. It opened today in 1983.

Four years later, Brian De Palma made a huge mark on 80s cinema with The Untouchables: a sleek, handsome and heavily fictionalized variation on the fall of Al Capone. David Mamet’s script lent the story some hard-boiled grit, and with the likes of Sean Connery and Robert De Niro sinking their teeth into it, it’s no wonder the film was such a success. Among its other accolades, it made stars out of both Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia, as well as scoring Connery a well-deserved Academy Award. The Untouchables opened today in 1987.

Finally, I hold a soft spot in my heart for X-Men: First Class, which was responsible for revitalizing the X-Men franchise and may still be the best of the lot. I grew up reading the X-Men, and it still seems like a minor miracle that these figures actually made it to the big screen. Director Matthew Vaughn cuts to the heart of the story, what it’s supposed to be about and the amazing characters used to convey it. First Class opened today in 2011.

 

Today in Movie History: September 27

Forest Whitaker has been a Hollywood staple for 20 years when he finally scored Oscar gold in The Last King of Scotland, for his unforgettable performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The film received criticism for a typically Hollywood tactic of including a white guy to serve as an audience surrogate, but considering the West’s support of the Amin regime — and considering that the white guy in question (James McAvoy) eventually gets gets hung up by a set of hooks — it’s a fair cop. The Last King of Scotland opened today in 2006.

Chuck Norris movies go beyond guilty pleasures for me into an active source of shame. I confess a kitsch weakness for their cartoonishly right-wing politics and Norris’s own breathtaking lack of onscreen charisma wallpapered over by some decent fighting skills. Put that man in a 1980s Cannon movie and all bets are off. Case in point, Invasion U.S.A., the ridiculous tale of horrible, awful brown people launching a terrorist assault on our country, only to be stopped cold by the man with the beard and the twin MAC-10s. As a viable expression of current Republican foreign policy, it’s chillingly accurate. As a movie, it will drive you to endless fits of giggles. It opened today in 1985.

 

 

 

Movie Review: Atomic Blonde

Review by Rob Vaux
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones and John Goodman
Directed by: David Leitch
Running time: 115 Minutes

 

There’s a very cool movie somewhere inside Atomic Blonde. It just doesn’t come out often enough. Slick spy thrillers with this particular tone don’t come along very often – balancing gritty thrills against more stylish espionage-as-fantasy notions – and that, coupled with another knockout leading turn from Charlize Theron gives it some power under the hood. But too often, all that gorgeous energy just has nowhere to go.

Theron’s character has been favorably compared to James Bond, and while it doesn’t quite match up, you can see signs of the same traits that made 007 such an icon. We first see her M16 Agent Lorraine Broughton recovering after a super-intense mission in Berlin as the Wall comes down. She’s soon put under the hot lights and order to recount her ordeal.

Her steely pushback in the face of systematic pressure is expected, but not the quiet fatalism that runs through her every word. The woman has seen what a madhouse the intelligence world can be, and knows how it usually ends for those involved. She accepts the consequences as serenely as she lights a cigarette. The fresh wounds riddling her body speak to her willingness to pay the price.

That sets a promising tone for what follows, as does the setting and the various ne’er-do-wells who inhabit it. ’89 Berlin was, to put it mildly, losing its collective mind, and in the shadows, the spy community just caught a live grenade: a grand MacGuffin revealing the names of every Allied intelligence operative operating in the East. It’s gone missing, and Broughton catches the first plane from London to track it down. Her main contact (James McAvoy) may have gone rogue – selling jeans and whiskey to eager East Berliners while trafficking in far more dangerous good behinds the scene – and yet he’s her best option to finding what she needs and getting out before the city goes completely bananas.

Direct David Leitch coats it all in an irresistible sheen of industrial post-punk arrogance, topped by a soundtrack full of era hits that trend to the punchier end of the scale. Period pieces rarely look so perfect for the intended mood as they do here, and the sort of energized collapse of the old order represented by the Berlin Wall translates into a fierce, freewheeling mood that speaks to grand things in store.

Nowhere is that better served than with the film’s action sequences: surprising, intense and impossible to look away. Leitch’s background in stuntwork serves him extremely well, and the brutally clever fight scenes are worth a look solely on their own merits. The topper is a ten-minute single shot tracking a fight up and down an abandoned building (and ultimately into the streets), with Theron savaging a seemingly unstoppable gaggle of goons through sheer indominable stubbornness. The actress herself is more than up for the physical challenges of the role, and Atomic Blonde knows how to throw her into the mayhem in precisely the right way.

And yet all of that stresses the surface details over the substance far too often, and once you dive beneath the sparkly sheen, the movie becomes a lot more problematic. A bevvy of supporting characters swirls around Broughton, without a whole lot of thought given to why we might be interested in them or what purpose they serve on her Byzantine mission. A lesbian lover (Sofia Boutella) pops up, and while the Algerian-born actress is rapidly becoming something to look forward to in everything she does, she doesn’t have a lot to work with. The same can be said for Eddie Marsan as a key Soviet defector, John Goodman as an exasperated CIA agent, and Toby Jones as Broughton’s superior: all of them champing at the bit and none of them quite certain what to do amid web of moves and countermoves that serves as the film’s plot.

The film’s fatal error comes in mistaking a given plot twist as mind-blowing in and of itself. Without investing us more in the outcome, “intriguing” soon becomes “confusing” and the lack of strong impetus reduces the action to empty noise more than once. Atomic Blonde skates along on attitude for longer than it has any right to, and Theron was born for this kind of material. That makes the effort interesting and provides it with some distinction in a field still utterly dominated by swaggering boys like Bond and Jason Bourne.

But you could feel something really special percolating here, and it never quite comes together.  That doesn’t make Atomic Blonde a disappointment, just an ultimately emptier experience than it needs to be. It should have been better, and with that, its hollow nature ultimately undoes it. If you can live on flashiness alone, it knows how to get the job done. Just don’t expect much steak beneath the sizzle.

Movies for the Resistance: X-Men — Days of Future Past

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan. Peter Dinklage, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters and Halle Berry
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Running time: 132 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year of release: 2014

 

Different is normal.

I thought a lot about what to put up for the 4th of July, our first under this horrifying farce of a presidency. I could get all cynical and talk about something like Wag the Dog or Ace in the Hole, or defiant with something like Norma Rae or All the President’s Men, or hopeful with something like Saving Private Ryan or Superman. But my wife made an observation a few days ago that stuck, and I’m going with a more oblique (and very personal) choice. In a lot of ways, the X-Men are a great way of acknowledging a suddenly-very-problematic holiday, and Days of Future Past features a quiet point that’s worth celebrating.

More importantly – and more pertinent to the issue at hand – even the worst of the X-Men movies understood the underlying message inherent in the characters. The big movers and shakers of the series – Bryan Singer, Lauren Shuler-Donner, Hugh Jackman, etc. – never lost sight of that, which allowed the franchise to survive its share of dodgy entries.

x-men2And when the films first started, their central theme felt as heavy handed as the comics did. (It still does, but we’re clearly past the point of subtlety these days.) The X-Men are born with extraordinary powers that make them feared and hated by the public. And yet they defend that selfsame public from all threats, counting on their deeds to change minds, keep the world safe, and claim an equal place at the table for their fellows. Their message – the ideal that they fight for – is simply that different is normal. The outsider you demonize for whatever reason has a lot more going on than you think, and might even save your life one day if you let them. That, ironically, might make some of them hate you all the more… but not all of them. Not even most of them.

The template allows almost any minority to project themselves onto these figures: anyone who was ever made to feel Not Us. Their fight might never end, but in the meantime, it allows them to find their worth and defend it in the face of screaming, hated opposition from the most unexpected corners. The more they avoid stooping to their enemies’ level while still fighting for every inch, the stronger they become.

That comes largely by design, of course. Like a lot of comic book characters, the X-Men were created by Jewish artists and writers, who understood what it meant to be on the outside looking in. That made it easy for them to speak basic truths about tolerance and understanding, and the recurring need to stand your ground when people want to strip your humanity from you. (The right’s recent false equivalency about being silenced falls completely apart on that front: no one has the right to deny others theirs.)

That’s helped the X-Men movies weather the chops of changing tastes and periodic Brett Ratner attacks. So too has its central dramatic conflict: Professor Xavier, asserting the need for peaceful change, facing off against Magneto, pursuing a more radical agenda. Xavier ultimately holds the moral high ground, but Magneto’s dark side looks awfully gray sometimes, and their various “students” switch sides from time to time just to demonstrate how blurry the line can be. Magneto’s strength as an antagonist comes from the fact that he may be right: that the better angels of human nature may not prevail and that war is the only answer. It’s a brutal thought, but as the numbers on his arm indicate, brutality is part of human nature.

The fascinating thing about their give-and-take isn’t their points of contention, however: it’s where they agree. Neither of them disputes the fact that mutants deserve equal treatment in the eyes of the world… and by extension, they assert the need for every real life minority and demographic to be treated with dignity and respect. That’s off the table, a moral absolute as given as breathing.

It feels obvious, and yet it resonates beyond the simple theatrics of heroism and villainy. Indeed, other comic book lines have adopted similar plot notions, from DC’s Project Cadmus to Marvel’s own Civil War. But the X-Men always did it best, and in times like ours – when dehumanizing other people becomes easier than ever – the simplicity of that message becomes even more important. Hell, even the bad guy figured it out.

Which brings me to Days of Future Past, one of the better entries in the saga, but truly exceptional in only one specific way. Peter Dinklage plays the villain, a well-intentioned genetics expert who agrees that a war is brewing between humans and mutants, and unleashes a “solution” that ultimately dooms them all. It’s a good role, but that’s not the reason it’s so exceptional. Indeed, the exceptional qualities often go unremarked… an irony that most of the characters would appreciate. Few people comment on Dinklage’s status as a little person these days. His performance – any of his recent performances in fact – stand solely on their own merits. He’s there because he’s the best actor for the job, not because of his height.

Different is normal, his presence tells us.

Different can even play evil without eliciting concerns about stereotyping or further prejudice.

Hollywood has a lot of work to do on that front – a lot. And no, this film doesn’t address issues like whitewashing or the literal battle for survival that members of many minority communities fight every day. But the normality of his presence is still worth noting. Right in the middle of a movie about overcoming prejudice comes an actor who effortlessly lets preconceived notions slide off of him. You can dismiss it if you wish, and it’s certainly no magic bullet. But it is a sign of hope: something Xavier claimed to always seek and which moved past us in this film with nary a ruffle being raised.

So on this compromised 4th of July, I choose to celebrate that fact: a great actor given a terrific showcase for reasons that have nothing to do with his external qualities. A man judged not on his size or his gender or the color of his skin, but the job he does onscreen.

That’s it in a nutshell: everything the X-Men tried to teach us poor impressionable comic book nerds and everything we’re supposed to be fighting for today. It sits there in the middle of a open fiction to remind us that progress is possible. We can get there, it tells us quietly but insistently. We can find it. No matter what the other side says or does. The better angels of our nature haven’t deserted us, though they need us now more than ever. Day of Future Past carries a small reminder of that fact, and a promise of what beautiful forests can grow from such acorns if we only have the courage to fight for them.

Happy 4th of July everyone.