‘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

A romantic comedy that’s both fresh and familiar

Kumail meets Emily when she sort-of-heckles his standup comedy performance that is centered on his immigration experience. He asks if anyone else is from Pakistan, and Emily, a young blonde woman from North Carolina, woops in response. He joshingly admonishes her, she wittily snaps back, and he hits on her after the show. She makes fun and of his come-on line, claims she’s not interested in dating, and then they fall for each other.

Problems arise, because if they didn’t we wouldn’t have a movie. Some of the problems are unsurprising, like his conservative parents trying to arrange his marriage to a good Pakistani girl. But then it gets surprising. Shortly after Emily figures out why Kumail hasn’t introduced her to his family and dumps him, she gets deathly ill and placed into a coma. He ends up keeping vigil by her bed until her parents show up, and they are predisposed to hate the man who broke their daughter’s heart. Hilarity ensues? Yes, and no.

The Big Sick is based on Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s actual relationship, with Nanjiani playing a version of himself and fantastic Zoe Kazan playing a version of Emily. The real couple wrote the beautifully realized screenplay, and Michael Showalter, who gave us last year’s under-watched and wonderful My Name is Doris, directs. The film mashes up a number of film tropes – star-crossed lovers, the immigrant experience in America, struggling comedians experiencing pathos, nervous guy meeting his girlfriend’s disapproving parents, and post 9/11 racism – and the result is something totally fresh while also being a little, and nicely, familiar.

The film’s authenticity comes partly from it being a true story, but also because Nanjiani, Gordon and Showalter create a naturalism in both drama and in comedy, with the jokes coming from people who are making them because it’s their job or because it’s the only way to deal with the awkwardness of life.

Nanjiani is the center of the film, and while his shtick as a performer is to be different versions of himself (see, for example, Dinesh in Silicon Valley), he does it very well. In his scenes with his conservative family – Anupam Kher as his father, Zenobia Shroff as his mother and Adeel Akhtar as his brother, all wonderful – he is deferential but still wry, struggling to be the comedian as well as their dutiful son. With his friends at the comedy club, he is more snarky, but he also tamps down his Pakistani-ness unless it’s being used as material. With Emily, he starts out trying to be what she wants him to be, but when she discovers his act, it’s devastating. His inability to integrate his various selves is his fatal flaw.

In trying to deal with Emily’s parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, Kumail is forced to confront his mistakes, his fractured identity and his love for Emily. Hunter and Romano are given fantastic roles, much deeper and broader than such characters usually get, and their interactions with Nanjiani are at times nerve-wracking, even upsetting, and then they are hilarious. I can say I both laughed and cried at The Big Sick.

The Big Sick
Directed by Michael Showalter
Written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani
Starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan and Holly Hunter
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

A most salient portrait of evil

Beatriz at DinnerWhen Miguel Arteta and Mike White started filming Beatriz at Dinner last August, I doubt they could have predicted how salient the film would be when it was released ten months later. The biting, mostly comic commentary on class, race and manners is particularly unsettling because Trump won, because what may have been written as satire a year ago is naked reality now. It’s a tragicomedy, but in our country’s current predicament, its more tragic, making the film’s bleak ending creepily logical. Arteta and White are known for their awkwardly brilliant collaborations Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl (among other things), and Beatriz, while not achieving the levels of those two films, is another affecting, often very funny cringe-fest.

Salma Hayek is Beatriz, a Mexican immigrant healer who specializes in various forms of massage and mysticisms. After working on her very rich longtime client Cathy (Connie Britton) in Newport Beach, her car won’t start, and Cathy asks her to stay for dinner. Cathy and her husband Grant (David Warshofsky) are hosting billionaire Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), his wife Jeana (Amy Landecker), and a younger couple Shannon and Alex (Chloë Sevigny and Jay Duplass). Beatriz is wildly out of place, not just because she’s working class and a recent immigrant, but rather because she’s not a toxic capitalist, like the hosts and their friends. Strutt is Trump crossed with Rupert Murdoch, a real estate mogul who thinks that because he owns valuable things he is a more valuable person than anyone else. He delights in hunting endangered wild game, tells his wife she’s “well-compensated,” and thinks it’s appropriate to interrogate the one non-white person at the dinner over her method of immigration. (It was legal, by the way.)

Beatriz has a few too many glasses of wine and does not behave as the rich folk think poor Mexicans should: she slyly snarks back at Strutt’s rude questions, interrupts her hosts inane conversation with her own substantial stories, and, worst, tells people that their behavior is immoral. Most of the humor comes from the appallingly petty cocktail chatter uttered by Shannon, Alex and Jeana, but it seems that before Trump’s election Strutt’s amoral arrogance would have also seemed satirical and funny. Now it feels simply evil. As White has done throughout his career, he takes conversations and monologues much further than most writers would dare, and Strutt’s monologues, expertly delivered by the great Lithgow, are chilling, both believable and discomfiting. Beatriz’s reactions evolve, unnervingly, from witty to wanton.

Arteta’s grainy, naturalistic shots work well for the Newport estate where most of the film takes place, exposing both the blemishes of the seemingly sanitized wealth and its enviable beauty. His ensemble is perfectly cast and they all do great work. Duplass and Sevigny are hilariously dreadful, both clearly delighting in saying White’s more scathing lines. Britton, playing the only sympathetic rich person, achieves the balance of cluelessness and kindness with seeming ease (an ease we’ve come to expect from her in any role). Hayek’s performance is one of her best; calm and wise, sad and pointed. But Lithgow’s performance is truly great in its representation of truly banal, utterly unsurprising evil.

Beatriz at Dinner
Directed by Miguel Arteta
Written by Mike White
Starring Salma Hayek, John Lithgow and Connie Britton
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Terrific, radiant, humble superpig

Okja and MIja (Ahn Seo-hyun)I think the best reason to applaud the ascendance of the Netflix and Amazon TV and film studios is their willingness to fund the ambitious projects of artists like the Wachowskis (Sens8), Jill Soloway (Transparent), and Aziz Ansari (Master of None) — and now Bong Joon Ho, who directed the insane, groundbreaking Snowpiercer, as well as the modern Korean classics Memories of Murder, Mother, and The Host. His latest, produced and distributed by Netflix, is Okja, a scathing sci-fi satire about greed, family, factory farming, and a giant mutant pig with a heart of gold. By Bong’s standards, it’s a lesser film, but better than the vast majority of films available in theaters: hilarious, sad, horrifying, poignant, and daring.

Tilda Swinton plays Lucy Mirando, the CEO of a Monsanto-like corporation founded by her sociopathic father and recently run by her similarly amoral sister Nancy. Lucy has severe platinum blonde bangs and a cheery affect and determination tinged with a cynical worldview. At the beginning of the film, she also has a slight lisp from braces. She’s Karen Crowder from Michael Clayton (a role that won her an Oscar) after heaps of Prozac and a shot of adrenalin, probably synthetic. Lucy is trying to rehabilitate her company by raising superpigs who will feed the world, and in a less-than-believable way to publicize it, she’s hosting a contest to see which farmer can raise the best one. The contest is hosted by Johnny Wilcox, a deranged former animal show host played with bonkers abandon by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Ten years later in rural South Korea, young Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) have raised their superpig Okja by letting it roam freely around their mountain home. Okja is Mija’s best friend, looking like a porcine hippo and acting like a cross between Lassie and Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. Mija thinks that her grandfather has bought Okja from Mirando, but discovers he’d lied to her after Wilcox shows up with a camera crew and takes Okja away. Enraged and resolute, Mija travels to Seoul to save Okja but she’s met with Mirando’s paramilitary forces and an animal rights terrorist group headed by a soft-spoken, tie-wearing man named Jay (Paul Dano). There’s an epic chase scene, capitalistic machinations, and Okja ends up in New York, where multiple horrors await. But Lucy sees Mija as a way to stave off a public relations disaster, and Mija flies across the world for the unveiling of Okja as the winner of the super pig contest. Things don’t go as planned for anyone; the third act is outrageous, as action comedy and as horror.

Throughout his oeuvre, Bong has threaded trenchant political commentary into genre plotting, sometimes more obvious than not. While Okja has similarities to The Host, with a young girl protagonist and a collection of clueless professionals dealing with an impossible creature, most non-Korean viewers needed to have its political references and positions explained. Okja is an obvious and contemptuous attack on the soulless cruelty of modern slaughterhouse food production and the carelessness of genetic manipulation of animals. Most American films that might have similar politics would be serious-minded Oscar-bait, like Silkwood or Norma Rae. And most animal-child buddy teams appear in G-rated family films like, well, Lassie. Okja, despite its visual style, slapstick moments, and basic plot structure, is decidedly not a kids movie. The violence, to both humans and especially to animals, is nightmarish. No studio would have allowed it, but Netflix gave Bong control, allowing him to make something shocking and profound. Okja should’t be missed and Netflix should be thanked.

Directed by Bong Joon Ho
Written by Bong Joon Ho and Jon Ronson
Starring Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, and Seo-Hyun Ahn
Rated TV-MA / R
On Netflix and in select theaters


Finally, ‘Wonder Woman’ is here

Gal Gadot in Wonder WomanInfamously, since Warner Bros. decided to create a crossover-heavy “universe” with its superheroes, the studio’s comic book films have been at best wrong-headed and underwhelming (Man of Steel) and at worst incompetently made and pointless (Suicide Squad). The fear that they’d screw up a Wonder Woman film after waiting decades to greenlight it was justified. Thankfully, they didn’t screw it up at all. Instead, under the direction of Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman is the studio’s best superhero film since 2005’s The Dark Knight, perfectly cast, funny, exciting and surprisingly moving.

The character is 75 years old and one of the most iconic superheroes ever created. But until last year’s last year’s inexorable Batman v Superman, which teased this new film, Wonder Woman hasn’t ever made an appearance on film. She hasn’t been seen in a non-animated form since the end of the campy, if delightful, series starring Linda Carter in 1979. Wonder Woman’s absence as the hero of a major TV show or film has been the subject of much consternation among fans, with most assuming film execs’ sexist views about what audiences want to see were to blame. When the Wonder Woman film was announced, fans rejoiced and got nervous: What if it sucked? Would it kill any female-focused future superhero films? It doesn’t suck, and we’ve already been promised a sequel.

Wonder Woman is the nom de guerre of Princess Diana (Gal Gadot) of the Amazons, the only daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). The Amazons are an all-female race of stellar warriors created by the Greek Gods (in this version) to fight the war god Ares. Ever since the defeat of Ares, the women have lived on a magically hidden island and trained for his inevitable return. Hippolyta fashioned Diana out of clay, and Diana grew into a willful but powerful young woman. One day, a plane crashes off the island and Diana rescues the pilot, an American spy fleeing the German military. Steve Trevor (a charming Chris Pine) is handsome and dashing, and his stories of the mass death and destruction of the Great War inspires Diana and others to think Ares has returned. Against her mother’s wishes, she leaves with Steve and, amongst a series of feminist fish-out-of-water jokes, they plan to stop evil Germans (Danny Huston and Elena Anaya) from deploying a hideous chemical weapon. Diana is convinced she’s going to find Ares and be able to kill him and thus end all war, while Steve – and their Scooby gang of sidekicks – are unsure Diana is divine or just damn good with a sword and lasso.

There are three reasons Wonder Woman works. Gal Gadot is chief among them, doing the seeming impossible by seamlessly transitioning from tough to sweet, empathic to avenging, naïve to wise, irascible to magnetic, ethereal to funny. Jenkins, who directed Charlize Theron to an Oscar for Monster in 2004, beautifully manages Gadot’s star-making performance alongside those of a tremendous supporting cast that includes Robin Wright, David Thewlis and Ewen Bremner. Her skill at the quiet moments would never have been in doubt, but the effects-laden action set-pieces were as thrilling and occasionally awe-inspiring. And finally, Allan Heinberg’s screenplay does the requisite origin story work while also addressing the meanings of and reasons for good, evil, war and love without the cheese that usually accompanies action film philosophizing.

When I left the movie, I was happy for Wonder Woman, finally done justice in the theater after decades of delays. I was also uplifted by Heinberg’s script, Gadot’s charisma, and, most importantly, by the exhilarated and beaming teenage girls, young women, their mothers, aunts, and sisters who were sitting around me. I wish they hadn’t waited so long for this kind hero, but I’m glad that when it arrived, it was this Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Written by Allan Heinberg
Starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and David Thewlis
Rated PG-13
Originally published in LGBT Weekly