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Why Atomic Blonde Kicks Baby Driver’s Ass

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My recent takedown of Baby Driver seems to have hit a nerve, and I’m more convinced than ever that I was right after seeing Atomic Blonde, which is the movie that writer-director Edgar Wright’s twee critics’ darling wishes it could be. To wit:

Charlize Theron > Ansel Elgort. The Oscar-winning actress has been kicking ass since Baby Driver‘s star was literally a baby. More than 20 years after her breakout role as a mobster’s moll in 1996’s 2 Days in the Valley (in which she beat up Teri Hatcher), Theron just keeps getting fiercer. This time, she plays a spy who will stop at nothing to retrieve a list of Soviet spies on the eve of the Berlin Wall’s fall. She brings a world-weary gravitas to the role as well as superior screen-fighting skills. As for Elgort, I’m told he’s adorable. Sorry, I don’t see it.

The music stays in tune with the story. Much has been made about Baby Driver‘s soundtrack, which preceded Wright’s screenplay, and how it’s synchronized with some of the film’s scenes. But it struck me as a random assemblage of pop tunes,  like Wright just put his iPod on shuffle: Beck, T. Rex, David McCallum, Martha and the Vandellas, Blur, Barry White, Queen. Atomic Blonde‘s New Wave-themed soundtrack, on the other hand, syncs up perfectly with the film’s 1989 setting and comments on the film’s story at the same time: ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran (So Far Away),” Falco’s “Der Kommisar,” Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom,” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” And if you don’t get a kick out of the scene in which a Russian thug stomps on a boombox playing Nena’s eternally annoying “99 Luftballons,” there’s something wrong with you. (Plus, why does Baby Driver wait until the closing credits to play the Simon & Garfunkel song that inspired its title?)

The action never stops. Baby Driver comes to a screeching halt whenever Elgort’s Baby starts making goo-goo eyes with a miscast Lily James as an Atlanta waitress. But Atomic Blonde reaches nuclear-level intensity when Theron’s secret agent goes undercover with The Mummy‘s Sofia Boutella as a French femme fatale.

The supporting actors provides real support. Baby Driver‘s ensemble either hams it up (Jon Hamm) or coasts on their previous personae (Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx). Atomic Blonde, on the other hand, allows its cast to show new sides of their talent, whether it’s a slimmed-down John Goodman as a cagey CIA agent or the often-underrated James McAvoy as MI6’s dissolute Berlin station chief. And there may be no actor better-suited to espionage dramas than Toby Jones (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Secret Agent), who looks like the live-action embodiment of the latter, constantly-trying-to-take-over-the-world half of Pinky and the Brain.

The director puts you in the driver’s seat. A former stunt double for Jean-Claude Van Damme, Atomic Blonde helmer David Leitch (in his directorial debut, although he did uncredited work on John Wick) puts you in the middle of the action. Most notably, there’s a car-chase scene that leaves Baby Driver‘s wannabe-Bullitt sequences in the dust. The only action film that gives Atomic Blonde a real run for its money in the smash-’em-up department is The Villainess, the South Korean sensation also directed by a former stunt man, Byung-gil Jung, and hitting U.S. theaters on August 28.

Maybe after he’s done directing Deadpool 2, Leitch can team up with Jung for a crossover sequel: Atomic Blonde vs. The Villainess. Now that would really kick ass.

5 Ways Strange Brew Predicted the Future

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Take off, you hosers! I recently caught a screening of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas’ 1983 cult classic Strange Brew as part of Quad Cinemas’ “Cool Movies” series in NYC, and I was surprised how well its surrealist humor held up — and how eerily prescient it was. Let me count the ways it predicted the pop-cultural future.

1. Bob and Doug McKenzie begat Wayne and Garth. Spun off from a late-night sketch show into a movie, the perpetual adolescents played by Moranis and Thomas lived in their parents’ house and co-hosted a public-access-style TV show (“The Great White North”). Plus, they did movie reviews — in this case, of their own film, over the closing credits. And like the latter-day kings of “Schwing!” Bob and Doug spoke in catchphrases, most notably “Take off, you hoser!” Beauty, eh

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2. The comedic force was with them. Four years before he donned comically oversized Darth Vader headgear as “Dark Helmet” in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, Moranis dressed in Imperial Stormtrooper gear for an absurdist hockey game against a team sporting the black gear made famous by Luke Skywalker’s dad. To paraphrase Yogurt—er, Yoda— “A coincidence I think this is not.”

3. The McKenzie boys went Gaga. Three decades prior to Lady Gaga’ wore her infamous “meat dress” to the 2010 Grammys, Moranis and Thomas donned gigantic raw steak costumes in a fantasy sequence depicting how they looked to their starving dog, Hosehead. Those little monsters!

4. Beat the Press! After they’re arrested for allegedly kidnapping a brewery heiress, Bob and Doug get bailed out by their thuggish lawyer. He confronts a bunch of nosy reporters and proceeds to karate-chop and body-slam them. “That’s how you handle the press!” he tells them. GOP Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte couldn’t have said it better — and done it worse — himself.

5. They were Canadian before Canadian was cool. Back when no one noticed our mild-mannered Neighbor to the North, the McKenzies made no secret of their national pride — Bob even wears a maple-leaf flag on his ski cap. Now that Justin Trudeau has trumped our Prez, everyone wants to take off for the Great White North.

Oh, Canada!

Why Must Superhero Movies Be Supersized?

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If you’re heading out to see Spider-Man: Homecoming, don’t expect to be coming home anytime soon: The film runs 135 minutes. Amazingly, movies based on comic books — inherently slim stories — seem to be growing in length with each passing year. I decided to track the running times of the major Marvel and DC flicks over the last half-century to see if they’re really getting longer, or if I’m just getting less patient in my advancing age. It doesn’t help that most of these blockbusters expect you to sit through the endless end credits to see the usually underwhelming “bonus” scenes.

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Batman: The Movie (1966): 104 minutes

Superman: The Movie (1978): 143 minutes

Superman II (1980): 127 minutes

Superman III (1983): 125 minutes

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987): 90 minutes

God bless Adam West, whose not-so-Dark Knight film was as blissfully brief as his Bat-trunks. Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel flicks got shorter with time, but not better; the second one was best. Kneel to Zod!

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Batman (1989): 126 minutes

Batman Returns (1992): 126 minutes

At least Tim Burton was remarkably consistent.

Batman Forever (1995): 122 minutes

Batman and Robin (1997): 125 minutes.

Joel Schumacher’s nipple-happy takes on Bruce Wayne and the Boy Wonder didn’t run forever; they just felt that way.

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X-Men (2000): 104 minutes

X2: X-Men United (2003): 133 minutes

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006): 104 minutes

Bryan Singer’s mutants suffered sophomore bloat, and The Last Stand proved a misnomer, as it was followed by X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009; 107 minutes); X-Men: First Class (2011; 132 minutes); The Wolverine (2013; 126 minutes); X-Men: Days of Future Past (2015; 131 minutes); X-Men: Apocalypse (2016; 144 minutes); and Logan (2017; 137 minutes).

 

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Spider-Man (2002): 121 minutes

Spider-Man 2 (2004): 127 minutes

Spider-Man 3 (2007): 139 minutes

Sam Raimi’s movies grew like a radioactive spider, but the more wasn’t the merrier. Like the original Superman films, this series peaked with No. 2.

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Daredevil (2003): 104 minutes

Hulk (2003): 137 minutes

The Punisher (2004): 124 minutes

The Incredible Hulk (2008): 112 minutes

As for these less-than-Marvelous movies, it didn’t matter if they dared to be devilish or were directed by Oscar winner Ang Lee  — they were all punishingly bad.

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Supergirl (1984): 124 minutes

Catwoman (2004): 104 minutes

Elektra (2005): 97 minutes

Wonder Woman (2017): 141 minutes

It wasn’t until this year that a Gal earned the right to make a superhero movie as supersized as the guys.

DARK KNIGHT RISES

Batman Begins (2005): 140 minutes

The Dark Knight (2008): 152 minutes

The Dark Knight Rises (2012): 165 minutes

Christopher Nolan’s trio of Caped Crusader flicks became increasingly long days’ journeys into Dark Knights.

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Fantastic Four (2005): 104 minutes

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007): 92 minutes

Fantastic Four (2015): 100 minutes

Even with a quartet of crimefighters, the Fantastic Four movies have never been as elastic as Dr. Reed Richards. Unfortunately, they also haven’t been very fantastic.

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Ghost Rider (2007): 110 minutes

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011): 95 minutes

Jonah Hex (2010): 81 minutes

Doctor Strange (2016): 110 minutes

After the initial success of Ghost Rider, supernatural superhero movies seemed cursed, no matter how severely they were chopped. Only Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange broke the hex by returning to the original’s running time.

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Iron Man (2008): 126 minutes

Iron Man 2 (2010): 125 minutes

Iron Man 3 (2013): 130 minutes

Like fat-to-fit-to-fat director Jon Favreau, his Tony Stark trilogy has contracted and expanded over time.

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Superman Returns (2006): 154 minutes

Watchmen (2009): 163 minutes

Man of Steel (2013): 143 minutes

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016): 151 minutes

Zack Snyder followed in Bryan Singer’s oversize footsteps, and the upcoming Justice League is rumored to run an unprecedented 170 minutes. Maybe that’s because Joss Whedon is finishing the film. He hasn’t exactly shown that brevity is the soul of wit with The Avengers (2012; 143 minutes) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2014; 141 minutes).

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Thor (2011): 113 minutes

Thor: The Dark World (2013): 112 minutes

Unlike the Norse god’s mane, Chris Hemsworth’s movies have been cut relatively short. It remains to be seen how long the upcoming three-quel Thor: Ragnarok will be.

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Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): 124 minutes

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): 136 minutes

Captain America: Civil War (2016): 147 minutes

Even Chris Evans’ Cap’n couldn’t shield his movies from lengthening exponentially.

 

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The Amazing Spider-Man (2012): 126 minutes

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014): 142 minutes

Andrew Garfield’s run as the wall-crawler spun Spidey-senselessly out of control.

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Green Lantern (2011): 114 minutes

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): 122 minutes

Ant-Man (2015): 117 minutes

Deadpool (2016): 108 minutes

Suicide Squad (2016): 123 minutes

Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (2017): 132 minutes

Ryan Reynolds forgot to put the comic in comic-book movie with Green Lantern but breathed new life into the genre with Deadpool. Not all lighthearted superhero (or villain) films are so light on their feet,  as the Joke(r) was on viewers with Suicide Squad. And Chris Pratt’s Star Lord couldn’t guard against the second Guardians from running well over two hours, a feat aptly achieved by Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man.

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The only question now seems to be: When will a superhero movie top the three-hour mark? A clue may lie in the title of next May’s Avengers: Infinity War. ‘Nuff said.

NY Asian FilmFest: Serial Killers, Porno & More!

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I was so discouraged by the lack of imaginative offerings from Hollywood over the Fourth of July weekend — Transformers 5, Cars 3Despicable Me 3, Audience Zero — that I took a flyer and saw three films I knew absolutely nothing about at The 2017 New York Asian Film Festival. The first two titles, Ordinary Person and The Long Excuse, didn’t sound as promising as the third, Wet Woman in the Wind, but each proved more original and adventurous in their own way than anything playing at my local hellplex. (And yes, that includes the wildly overrated Baby Driver.)

Set in 1987, director Kim Bong-Han’s Ordinary Person purports to tell the story of South Korea’s first serial killer, and while it’s about so much more than that, it does bear a resemblance to Michael Mann’s thriller from that same era, Manhunter. Hyeon-ju Son, a veteran character actor with a deadpan gaze reminiscent of Barney Miller‘s late, great Jack Soo, stars as a morally challenged detective who catches the case. He finds himself torn between his longtime friendship with an investigative reporter and governmental forces resisting the transition to democracy, with the lives of his mute wife and disabled son hanging in the balance. Ultimately, Ordinary Person takes on the epic scope of another Mann film, Heat, as the line between cops and criminals gets obscured under a cloud of corruption. In short, it’s anything but ordinary.

Japanese novelist-turned-screenwriter Miwa Nishikawa’s The Long Excuse features a more comic tone, although the event that sets the plot in motion — a bus crash on a snowy mountain road that takes the lives of two wives — is anything but funny. An unlikely friendship develops between their widowed husbands, a narcissistic celebrity novelist (Masahiro Motoki, whose dashing good looks recall The Last Emperor‘s John Lone) and a dim-witted but good-hearted truck driver (the ironically named musician and actor Pistol Takahara). The author volunteers to babysit the frequently absent father’s kids (the gifted Kenshin Fujita and Tamaki Shiratori) and learns to be less selfish, but rather than a cloying farce like Three Men and a Baby, The Long Excuse becomes a sardonic dramedy with the emotional impact of Kramer vs. Kramer.

Moving on to an entirely different genre, Wet Woman in the Wind seeks to reboot “Roman Porno,” a wildly popular category of Japanese films in the 1970s and 80s that I must confess I’d never heard of. Among its requirements: the films must run between 70 and 80 minutes and feature a sex scene every ten minutes. Director Akihito Shiota meets those standards with ease and finds unexpected romantic comedy in the tale of a sexually voracious waitress (Yuki Mamiya) who sets out to seduce a reclusive playwright (Tasuku Nagaoka) by any means necessary, including violence. In a post-screening Q&A, Mamiya charmed the audience’s proverbial pants off through a translator. Asked about her favorite scene in the film, she cited one in which her character makes acrobatic love while she and her partner eat food and drink beer, explaining she’d like to try that in real life, and that “I’m open to offers.” Succesfully achieving Mamiya’s pre-screening declaration that “I hope the movie makes you laugh to the bottom of your bellies,” Wet Woman served as a delicious dessert after a most satisfying three-course cinematic meal.

And yet I’m still hungry for more, so you can bet I’ll be sampling more offerings from the New York Asian Film Festival, which runs through July 16.

Five Reasons Why “Baby Driver” Sucks

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Those taste-challenged dopes at Rotten Tomatoes have misled me again: Baby Driver rates as 98 percent “Fresh,” but I’m here to tell you it’s rancid. Sure, writer-director Edgar Wright’s car-chase thriller looks sleek on the surface, but it’s 100 percent substance-free. It’s a soundtrack in search of a story. You can only coast on style for so long—this lemon runs out of gas less than halfway through its brutally overlong (nearly two hours!) running time. The clichés pile up like texting drivers on the turnpike—the protagonist’s tragic backstory (his parents died in a car crash), the one-last-heist-and-I’m-out trope, the foulmouthed old lady, the overripe dialogue (“the minute you catch feelings is the minute you catch a bullet”), the list goes on and on and on. Plus, the movie’s called Baby Driver. And it’s about a guy named Baby who’s a driver. Oof! How do I hate Baby Driver? Let me count the ways.

  1. I didn’t know who or what an Ansel Elgort was before I saw this movie, after after suffering through it, I still don’t. It appears to be a pale, skinny, charisma-deficient cipher. To put it in car-chase movie terms, he’s a BB compared to Bullitt‘s Steve McQueen. Hell, he can’t even keep up with The Driver‘s Ryan O’Neal.
  2. Lily James seems like a very nice young British girl. She made a fine fairy-tale princess in Disney’s recent Cinderella reboot. But she looks about as out of place as a waitress at an Atlanta diner as I would at Downton Abbey.
  3. One Jon is not as good as the other. As one of the heist-gang’s members, The Walking Dead‘s Jon Bernthal brings the right kind of gritty gravitas to keep Wright’s would-be hard-boiled dialogue from going soft. But he disappears early in the film and turns the focus over to another AMC vet, Jon Hamm. Whoever though the Artist Formerly Known as Don Draper (and Dick Whitman) would make a convincingly sadistic thug is the real Mad Man. Eiza Gonalzez, who plays his moll, is the real deal, though. More movies with her in them, please.
  4. Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx are on cruise control. The Academy Award winners know they’re slumming it in this B-minus movie, and they put in minimum effort as a result. Spacey’s performance as the gang’s ringleader is indistinguishable from his work as President Frank Underwood on House of Cards, except he doesn’t have a Southern accent or speak into the camera. Foxx showed more emotional range in Kanye West’s music video for “Gold Digger” than he does as a street tough here. He’s done more acting pretending not to date Katie Holmes than he does here.
  5. I know Quentin Tarantino (well, I interviewed him once). Quentin Tarantino is a friend of mine (okay, I’ve actually interviewed him twice). And you, Edgar Wright, are no Quentin Tarantino. Need I say more? I do? Ok, how about this: I also saw The House, with Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler. It’s at 19 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I was the only person in the theater when I saw it. And it was more entertaining than Baby Driver. Don’t get me wrong—it’s awful. But it’s not Baby Driver awful.

The Big Sick and Beatriz: Independents’ Day

If your idea of cinematic fireworks over the Fourth of July weekend doesn’t involve cartoon characters, car chases, superhero(in)es or giant robots, fear not. There are a couple of movies that find genuine drama and comedy in the lives of flesh-and-blood human beings. Of course, they’re both independently produced films—the major studios want nothing to do with reality this time of year, if ever.

The better of the pair is The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani’s affecting autobiographical rom-com about a stand-up who forges an unlikely bond with the parents of his comatose ex-girlfriend (the deeply adorable Zoe Kazan as Nanjiani’s real-life wife, Emily V. Gordon, who co-wrote the screenplay with him).  Under the sure-handed direction of Hello, My Name is Doris‘ Michael Showalter, Silicon Valley vet Nanjiani proves a surprisingly subtle leading man, holding his own in challenging scenes with the award winners who play his would-be in-laws, Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.

Running two full hours, the film moves at the same leisurely pace as many of producer Judd Apatow’s often-overlong comedies like This is 40—or This is 40 Minutes Too Long, as my former Two Cranky Guys cohort Bret Watson dubbed it. But it’s never dull, even when it elicits more tears of empathy than hilarity. The cultural differences between Nanjiani’s Pakistani parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff), who want him to enter an arranged marriage with a Muslim woman, and Kazan’s often-awkward folks is well-handled. When Romano’s slightly dim professor asks Nanjiani his feelings about 9/11 and he facetiously replies, “It was a real tragedy—we lost 19 of our best guys,” the line lands with equal parts laughter and pain. As does The Big Sick, a health-care saga that’s far more entertaining than the one playing out in Washington.

Beatriz at Dinner also resonates with the headlines, as the titular Mexican immigrant, an alternative healer played by a never-better Salma Hayek, butts head with a butt-headed real-estate mogul with the Trump-like name of Doug Strutt (John Lithgow, who wisely underplays his character’s bluster). After Beatriz’s car breaks down while she’s giving a massage, they share a meal at the mansion of one of Beatriz’s well-meaning but clueless clients (Connie Britton). The party is rounded out nicely by Chloe Sevigny, David Warshofky and the Transparent duo of Jay Duplass and Amy Landecker.

Insightfully written and directed by Mike White and Miguel Arteta, the team behind Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl (which wasn’t as good), the film doesn’t overstay its welcome, running a lean 83 minutes. But as it builds to a haunting climax, Beatriz at Dinner provides plenty of what many mature moviegoers are craving: food for thought.

This Summer’s Real Wonder Women

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Women are doing amazing things at the movies — and I’m not just talking about director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, which shattered the $100 million opening-weekend glass ceiling. I’m thinking of female filmmakers like The Zookeeper’s Wife‘s Niki Caro and Band Aid‘s Zoe-Lister Jones, who have worked with primarily distaff crews, and especially Sofia Coppola, who became only the second woman in history to win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival with her feminist remake of Clint Eastwood’s The Beguiled.

The 1971 original, directed by one of Clint’s most macho collaborators, Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, Escape from Alcatraz), adapted Thomas Cullinan’s novel about an injured Union deserter during the Civil War who takes refuge at an all-girls’ school behind Confederate lines and drives the women there mad with desire. It plays like a Gothic horror film, seen from Corporal John McBurney’s perspective, as the cruel headmistress (Geraldine Page) amputates his wounded leg after he’s caught in bed with one of the girls (Jo Ann Harris) and pushed down the stairs by a virginal teacher (Elizabeth Hartman) who’s desperately in love with him.

Coppola’s version tells the story from the women’s points of view, and the characters are much subtler. Nicole Kidman underplays the headmistress role — she’s far from the castrating psycho embodied by Page. Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, each of whom has collaborated with Coppola before on films like The Virgin Suicides and Somewhere, refuse to conform to Madonna and whore archetypes. And Colin Farrell brings a more feral hostility to the wounded soldier than cool Clint could muster.

The Beguiled 2.0 runs 12 minutes shorter than its predecessor, as Coppola (who also wrote the screenplay) chooses not to depict the amputation on-screen and also excises an incestuous subplot involving the schoolmarm, thus rendering Kidman’s character more sympathetic. Her images, shot by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, are immaculately composed, and she demonstrates a masterful control of the film’s tone. A second Oscar nomination for Best Director (after 2003’s Lost in Translation) seems likely for Coppola, and she could earn repeat nods for Best Picture and Best Screenplay as well. She delivers on the promise of the film’s title: She beguiles us.