‘Atomic Blonde’ is super queer

Twenty years ago, Rupert Everett, fresh off his star making turn in My Best Friend’s Wedding, lobbied to become the star of a gay superspy franchise. It never happened despite Everett seemingly being born to play such a role. Neither Hollywood financiers nor the action film ticket-buyers were quite ready for such a character, or at least not ready enough to support a big budget tentpole film a la James Bond.

Nowadays, it’d be possible to do such a thing on Netflix or Amazon – the super-queer sci-fi action show Sense8 lasted two seasons, and something much less expensive could last longer – but it’s still hard to imagine a queer Jason Bourne being made. But a queer Lara Croft? Yes. Women who have sex with women, especially cisgender and bisexual ones, are a much easier sell for multiplexes, the audience for which is largely young and male. And the folks who gave Atomic Blonde its $30 million budget, much of it for Charlize Theron as the lead, probably had them in mind. Atomic Blonde is a landmark as a super-queer action film, but it’s also a perfectly fine action film.

Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella in Atomic Blonde

The film takes place in Berlin in the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. A Soviet spy killed a British spy, stole the list of every clandestine agent alive, and then went rogue, looking to sell the list on the Black Market. MI6 sends Lorraine Broughton (Theron) to Berlin to help their station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) get the list, which is also being pursued by the Soviets and the French. Immediately, things go awry, and she is forced to fight her way through West and East Berlin while having a very James Bondian romance with a French agent named Delphine (Sofia Boutella) and figuring out which of her various allies is betraying her.

The plot is overly, sometimes hilariously, complex, but we’re not in the theater for spy games. We’re there to watch Charlize Theron beat people up. David Leitch, who directed John Wick, directs and choreographs fight scenes as well as any living director, and Theron and her stunt double earn their salaries pounding the bad guys into a pulp and getting their faces pummeled. (Theron chipped a number of teeth during filming). The fights and much of the dramatic action are highly stylized, with searing colors and plenty of chiaroscuro, nodding both to film noir and the film’s source material The Coldest City.

It’s strongly implied that the British agent killed in the film’s first scene was once Lorraine’s lover, but the film’s only sex scenes are between Lorraine and Delphine. And their relationship is the only one in the film that has any kind of emotional resonance. With everyone else, Lorraine lies, manipulates, interrogates and demands; with Delphine, it is said, she tells the truth. Lorraine’s only authentic connection is with a woman, and for a film with Atomic Blonde’s visibility and genre, that’s a radical thing. And the publicity campaign doesn’t shy from this, giving Lorraine and Delphine’s sex scene prominent placement in the widely watched trailer.

Unfortunately, Atomic Blonde relies on a few deeply un-radical tropes of queer films, particularly those about women. And the script for the film doesn’t utilize the film’s extraordinary cast well enough. Theron is as gorgeous and charismatic as ever, but Lorraine needed a more variable affect and maybe a believable back story. McAvoy’s Percival is a fun, ribald and amoral agent, but he’s never given any motivation to explain his behavior. Similarly, both John Goodman and Toby Jones have rather thankless roles.

Each character propels the plot, but they provide us with no reason to care much about the list, the Berlin Wall or who will win in the end. An action film lacking depth of meaning and emotion isn’t all that surprising, and I had a great time nonetheless. I do hope there will be a sequel. I want to learn more about Lorraine, and I want to watch her kick a lot of ass and then get the girl in the end.

Atomic Blonde
Directed by David Leitch
Written by Kurt Johnstad
Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy and Sofia Boutella
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

My favorite movies of 2015: There are a lot

My top 10 list is never a list of the “best” movies, but rather the ones I liked the most. This is because I think there are some movies that might be technically better made that I didn’t actually enjoy, for whatever reason. Like Room. Anyway, here are my favorite movies of 2015.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road. The third sequel to the post-apocalyptic classic Mad Max is best action film since The Matrix: jaw-dropping, bold, ambitious and thrilling. Max (now played by Tom Hardy) is again a loner on the run in the barren wasteland left by a nuclear war. He’s teamed with another lone wolf named Imperator Furiosa, who Charlize Theron instantly made iconic with physical and emotional ferocity. The genius of Fury Road is in Miller’s visual storytelling, from the wrenching and dusty roller coaster chase scenes to the still moments of sometimes horrid desert beauty, that feels totally new. This is operatic action, bombastic and intense and engulfing and almost exhausting.
  2. Carol. Todd Haynes’s indelible, sublime, a perfectly observed film is based on Patricia Hightower’s 1952 classic lesbian romance The Price of Salt. Carol, played with aching beauty by Cate Blanchett, is a wealthy suburban wife in the midst of a divorce, and Rooney Mara plays Therese, a young shop girl making her way in New York. Blanchett’s sly, wise, and only just barely vulnerable performance is among her best, and Mara is also extraordinary, expressing Therese’s wonder, love, and grief with subtlety and sympathy.
  3. Brooklyn. An assured Saoirse Ronan is Eilis, who leaves stifling small town Ireland for expansive and exciting Brooklyn in the early 1950s. She falls in love with an Italian-American plumber (Emery Cohen) but then returns home after a death in the family, suddenly unsure where she belongs. An intimate but universal immigrant’s story, Brooklyn expresses the conflicts, joys, and promise of leaving home. Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Toibin’s novel is seamless.
  4. Ex Machina. Alex Garland made his directorial debut with this gorgeous psychological thriller about artificial intelligence, arrogance, and misogyny. Slight and nerdy Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest to spend a week with reclusive, eccentric tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a hard-drinking boxing enthusiast dude-bro. Caleb is actually brought to determine whether Nathan’s latest android has believably human artificial intelligence. Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, is clearly not human, but she is stunningly humanlike, both in her affect and her intuition. Vikander’s performance is epic, but it is Garland’s surprising, creepy, and powerful script that is the real star.
  5. Tangerine. This masterpiece of LGBT cinema is about one day in the lives of two transgender prostitutes in Hollywood. On Christmas Eve, hilariously enraged Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is hunting down her boyfriend and the real fish he’s been cheating on her with. Meanwhile, weary, wise, and tough Alexandra (Mya Taylor) wanders the streets, looking for friends to tell about her cabaret show that night. Shot entirely on iPhones, the film is full of stunning compositions and saturated light. It is blisteringly funny and foul, and it is also moving: a paean to friendship and pride.
  6. The Revenant. Leonardo DiCaprio may finally win his Oscar for his harrowing and masochistic performance as the insanely determined Hugh Glass, a hunter and guide in the 18th century American frontier who is left for dead by the unscrupulous John Fitzgerald, played by a wicked and brilliant Tom Hardy. The movie is long, extremely violent, and at times unbelievable, but directed Alejandro González Iñárritu and shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenent is engulfing, gorgeous, terrifying, and by the end, transcendent.
  7. Grandma. Lily Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a recently widowed lesbian poet who is broke, unglued, directionless, and a bit spiteful. When her teenaged granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) knocks on her door and says she needs $500 for an abortion, Elle must put herself together, find the money, and earn redemption in time for Sage’s late afternoon appointment. The funny, subversive, and very gay script comes from director Paul Weitz, who provides Tomlin one of her best characters, who in turn provides Tomlin the opportunity to give one of her greatest performances (which is saying something).
  8. Spotlight. This taut and smart depiction of Boston Globe reporters’ investigation into the sex abuse scandal in the Boston Catholic Church is the best film about journalism since All the President’s Men. Tom McCarthy’s trickless direction and his and Josh Singer’s efficient screenplay impeccably merge a complicated mystery with an indictment of a culture of secrecy, silence, and deference to power. Most of the film’s major characters are occasional or lapsed Catholics, and their personal angst over what their faith has done shows the toll this kind of reporting can take. The film is as much about how these reporters got the story as it is about how the story got them.
  9. Creed. Ryan Coogler’s Rocky sequel-cum-reboot turns Rocky into the trainer and Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son Donny into the boxer with something to prove. The plot is by-the-numbers boxing movie, but Sylvester Stallone’s seventh turn as Rocky Balboa is arguably his best, and Michael P. Jordan is again sterling, this time as the young man with anger-management problems and chip on his shoulder. Coogler pulls out these phenomenal performances and re-purposes the Rocky tropes perfectly, using the Philadelphia landscape, fight choreography, and iconic music in surprising and thrilling ways.
  10. The Big Short. Adam McKay has random celebrities – Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez –break the fourth wall to explain the Byzantine financial procedures that were at the center of the financial collapse in 2008. It’s gimmicky but it works, and the rest of this intricate and smartly written film about the financial experts who figured out what was happening is enraging, fascinating, and funny. The latest indictment of capitalist excess and immorality features most excellent turns from Steve Carrell and Christian Bale.

Movies that I also liked a lot or thought were very well made: The Martian. 45 Years. Sicario. Straight out of Compton. Steve Jobs. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Anomalisa. The Clouds of Sils Maria. Room. Antman. Inside Out. While We’re Young. Magic Mike XXL.

I wrote a bunch of reviews over the last few months

Since February, I’ve reviewed a bunch of movies. Here are some highlights, in case you missed what I do over at San Diego LGBT Weekly.

CinderellaCinderella, one of the most indelible of Western fairy tales, has been reinterpreted countless times since it first appeared in print in the 17th century; but mostly the story stays true to its origins: a wealthy girl is turned into a servant by a horrible stepmother and a fairy godmother helps the girl win the heart and hand of a charming prince. The animated Disney version released in 1950 is the most famous, and its story structure, characters and lyrics from its songs are so iconic that most people cannot think of Cinderella without thinking of Gus the mouse, the wicked stepsisters Drisella and Anastasia, and “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.” While Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was wildly reimagined into the commercially successful but artistically and thematically messy Maleficent, with Disney’s massively budgeted live action version of Cinderella, they didn’t stray more than a few inches from the source material. And the result is an instant classic. [More]

Get HardPeople laughed during the preview screening of Get Hard. This is what bothered me most about the comedy featuring Will Ferrell as a clueless finance executive who hires a much more clueful Kevin Hart to prepare him for 10 years in prison. More than how terribly made it is, how pathetic and offensive its humor is, how simply dumb it is, what irks me most about Get Hard is that people liked it. And more than whether or not the people in Hollywood are gay, straight, black, white, conservative or progressive, Get Hard’s tickets sales are what will ensure that Hollywood continues to make movies likeGet Hard, movies that, yes, are inept, but are also, and more importantly, bad for our culture. [More]

Going ClearI now live five blocks from the giant blue Scientology building in Hollywood, and I often catch a bus at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, where young Scientologists, wearing blue blazers and solicitous smiles pass out proselytizing leaflets proclaiming, as all religions do, that they have the true answers to enlightenment. I avoid them. This is unfair and, honestly, bigoted, because the vast majority of Scientologists are good people looking for answers to life’s problems; they are not among the members of the Church hierarchy who, according to critics, operate like an organized criminal syndicate that happens to also be a cult. But you never know who among the foot soldiers is actually, well, a soldier who might eventually con me, stalk me, or keep me prisoner in a desert compound. As someone who has spent his life looking for answers to deep emotional questions, I have great empathy for people doing the same thing. But after watching Going Clear, Alex Gibney’s extraordinary and damning documentary based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, I worry for these young Scientologists and what might happen to them. [More]

While Were YoungMaybe it’s because I’m about the same age at the characters Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play in While We’re Young that I so identified with them, their ennui about aging and their adulation of a much younger, fresh and earnest couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia (Watts) have reached their early middle age and discovered that they have not become the people they’d planned to become. They seem comfortable – he teaches documentary filmmaking and she produces the movies of her famous father and they have a nice apartment somewhere in New York City – but Josh, especially, is not the successful, lauded documentarian he wanted to be, and they do not have children. At the beginning of the film, they talk about how great it is that they’re free to do whatever they want because they’re not tied down, that they don’t need kids to be fulfilled. But when they meet Jamie (Driver, playing a version of Adam from Girls) and Darby (Seyfried, adorable but underused), Josh suddenly, Cornelia more slowly, realizes that they are somewhat unfulfilled. [More]

Ex MachinaHollywood is enthralled with big budget science fiction and fantasy films, particularly those starring superheroes, but despite their technological sophistication few of them do much more than please the eyes and leave you a little hard of hearing. Too much of a good thing is not good. These films have also brought along with them a renaissance of “hard” sci-fi, speculative fiction that makes you think more than it makes you drop your jaw in awe of the special effects. In the last few years, brainy big budget films like Inception, Interstellar, and District 9 have joined the exquisite, modestly budgeted Her and Under the Skin. Belonging to the latter category is Alex Garland’s fantastic Ex Machina, a gorgeous psychological thriller about artificial intelligence, arrogance, and, deliberately or not, misogyny. [More]


Max is a blood bagBefore I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road, I spent a weekend watching George Miller’s three previous films about Max Rockatansky, all of which were filmed more than thirty years ago and starred Mel Gibson in the role that made him a superstar. I’d never seen them, and it hadn’t occurred to me to do so until now. This is a little odd, considering my taste in movies, but it happened. I watched them in order, first Mad Max (1979), then Mad Max: The Road Warrior (1981), then Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). All of them feature Max (Gibson), a stoic hero who tries to avoid a conflict between good and evil around him but then becomes its hero; the films are progressively more expensive and more explosive.

The first film, a low budget Australian surprise that for many years was the most profitable film in history, is an exploitation film; a hyper-violent revenge fantasy about a nearly lawless near future that happens to be directed by an auteur. It’s stunning and unnerving and brilliant. The second is a Hollywood-budgeted post-apocalyptic spectacle so stylistically influential that we cannot imagine dystopian depictions without the mutant vehicles, steampunk machinery, the clothing made of leather and feathers. The third is more of campfest, with Tina Turner as an evil queen and an army of abandoned children that make the film more family friendly. It was the only one of the films not rated R, and that was clearly a deliberate attempt to bring in more money.

Decades later, after Miller made Babe and won an Oscar for Happy Feet, he’s returned to Max, recast him with the wonderfully intense Tom Hardy, and paired him with an astonishing Charlize Theron, and made a film as surprising as Mad Max was. It’s the best action film in years. I haven’t seen a movie so jaw-dropping, so bold and ambitious and thrilling, since The Matrix 16 years ago. And by jaw-dropping, I mean my jaw actually dropped as I leaned forward in my seat in giddy awe. [More]

SpyMelissa McCarthy’s patented under-her-breath dirty jokes work extremely well in Spy, partly because we’re led to believe that she is a schlubby cat lady, so the jokes are a surprise, and partly because they are very, very funny (but unprintable in this publication). Susan is endearing and sympathetic because she looks and acts a lot more like a typical American woman than absurdly skinny Rose Byrne does. Her quest to become a superspy is all the more fun because it is seemingly impossible for a woman who everyone assumes is uncoordinated and weak. But she’s actually not what we assume; she’s almost superheroic in her abilities. [More]

I also reviewed The Last Five Years, Focus, Chappie, Insurgent, The Water Diviner, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, The D Train, Pitch Perfect 2, Tomorrowland, San Andreas, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.