The damage sustained to the film industry is, as of late, woefully overstated. While, yes, oftentimes the most prominent films are stupid or disappointing and, yes, it seems like a new stupid idea for a movie is announced everyday.
Yet, it should be clear that as long as we’ve had a film industry (or any commercialized creative profession), we’ve had expensive failures and we’ve had stillborn ideas. Every “Golden Age” in anything had a few bad ones. The number one single of 1969 was “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies, the same Best Picture category that included The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde also included Doctor Doolittle.
All of this really comes to the point for all the handwringing, there’s still a remarkable amount of quality in the film industry, inventive stories being told the way only film can convey. It’s also a not-so-subtle way of justifying why I’m giving three movies an A all at once. So, without further adieu, let me explain why Atomic Blonde, Brigsby Bear, and Logan Lucky are three of this year’s best reasons to hope out into the theaters.
Summary: At the end of the Cold War, spycraft still runs hot. MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to Berlin to recover a stolen microfilm that contains a list of every active agent in the Soviet Union. With her contact David Percival (James McAvoy), Broughton plunges into a world of doublecross, murder, and the existential dread of being a spy with plenty of neon and New Wave.
Why This One Is Getting An “A”:
If there’s a movie more obviously made for me, I’d be hard-pressed to describe it. An action spectacle in ’80s Berlin directed by one of the fine folks who brought us John Wick? I’m intrigued. The film’s aesthetic courses with neon and shadows and the soundtrack pumps the great synth-heavy hits of the 80s, including a beatdown set to George Michael’s “Father Figure”? I’m down. It features a lead performance from Charlize Theron at her icy, slowly revealing best? I bought tickets already, quit selling me.
Atomic Blonde is the kind of film that feels like a modern James Bond more than any other attempt has, short maybe Casino Royale. It keeps all of that intrigue and style and glamour that those old James Bond films had. Its protagonist is hard-drinking, hard-thinking, and making love to beautiful women who eventually meet terrible fates.
But it doesn’t feel glamorizing or worshipful of its hero. Its storyline becoming so wrapped up in double and triple-turns that the only story becomes the crushing existential despair of spycraft, of the isolation of removing every identity you have in the service of ideals that are on their way out. It’s not for Queen and Country when the Queen is far away and its hard to remember what your country is anymore.
Atomic Blonde, on top of its sorrowful rumination, is also gifted with some positively bone-crunching action sequences. It should be no surprise that David Leitch can design a good action sequence given his past work, but it’s still a pleasant discovery that he can couch it well in the film around. Theron is a coil of physical efficiency and even as she takes blow after blow, the film revels in the damage that she can do. Most impressive, even despite its hype, is a 10 minute sequence done in what appears to be a single take, a masterwork of tension and choreography, a brutal sequence where no one goes down after one hit and where you never know who’s going to take the final blow. Kudos to Theron for actually playing through every beat of this sequence.
It’s a physical component to what is a surprisingly impressive performance from her overall. Broughton is a well-worn character, wearing so many masks and telling so many lies that she’s lost track of who she actually is. The cast around her is strong as well, McAvoy playing a perfect spy scumbag and Boutella bringing a lot of intrigue to very little time.
Atomic Blonde is a 21st century spy film looking back into the 20th century. The morality is muddled, the style isn’t.
Summary: When James Pope (Kyle Mooney) was just a child, he was kidnapped by Ted (Mark Hamill) and April Mitchum (Jane Adams) to live in a bunker underground, told the world had basically ended, and only given children’s educational show Brigsby Bear to connect with the outside world. Then, one day, he has all that ripped from him. His parents, his show, his world was a lie. So James has a new world to adjust to that he’s had no conception of.
Why This One Is Getting An “A”:
It’s hard to avoid cliche when you celebrate your own medium in the making of a work. Concept albums about defiant musicians, books about complicated novelists, and films about filmmakers who find a lens into the world. Brigsby Bear isn’t necessarily innocent of cliche, of playing into celebrating the people who are creating the work. But it’s a film that doesn’t feel so self-serving, so masturbatory.
At the heart of Brigsby Bear is sweetness, of an earnest affection for the creative process and the people who make it up. But not just the creative process, but the people who love the creative process. Brigsby Bear is a work on fandom, the people who use creative works to feel out and understand the world around them. Brigsby Bear is a celebration of passion and what it means in people’s lives.
It also understand that it’s not just the beats you move through that make a story feel unique, but the way you tell it. Writers Kevin Costello and Kyle Mooney (who also stars) give the world such unique flavor and imbue such odd details into the Brigsby Bear show. It feels studied, like these people actually know what becomes cult phenomena and what people raise fandoms around, without ever feeling condescending to the work itself.
It’s that razor’s edge of understanding how weird this thing is without ever looking down on James for being so in love with it. Much of that is helped by Kyle Mooney. Look, you know you feel about Mooney from watching him on SNL. If you don’t like his shtick, you may not be into it here, but if you love it, it’s basically what he does for the whole of the film. He just turns that awkwardness and that difficulty interacting with the world into a dramatic character, one who grows in the smallest ways and one who really is very easy to connect deeply with.
Brigsby Bear is just a film imbued with a deep empathy for the people in its movie and for the people that it’s about. It understands its world and tells it with a unique dynamic and a unique sense of humor.
Summary: Them Logan Boys, Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver), get up to some trouble. With the help of their sister Mellie (Riley Keough), current-con Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), and a couple other ne’er do-wells, they’re gonna rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Why This One Is Getting An “A”:
I could pretty much live forever in films about charming Southerners running afoul of the law. If they’re doing it in the South, it’s only a bonus.
Steven Soderbergh’s return from his “retirement” (during which he directed a season of television and helped make a few other movies) is a call-back to his Ocean’s Eleven days, trading the high-class slick hucksters for the very real poor of the South.
It’s clear Soderbergh grew up in the South (the same South I did, largely), as he really does understand what a Southern culture looks like in the contours of the real world, and what it looks like for the real people living in it. The way they talk and the way they interact and what they think about. It feels tangible and easily recognizable.
It’s also a lot of fun. Logan Lucky is not a manic film. It has the pacing of any Soderbergh art film. Deliberate and measured and letting it all unfold just as it should, it’s as classically composed narratively as a heist film gets. But Logan Lucky is an absolute hoot, populating its world with weirdos that are just specific and bizarre enough without ever going full cartoon. Hell, the movie gets an enjoyable live-action performance out of Seth McFarlane, certainly no small feat.
But as much the heist motivates, it’s about the people that are doing the thieving. What drives them and why take this step? What do they unveil about themselves? There’s all these great little motivations and these little steps. Joe Bang revealing his chemistry knowledge, the Logan brothers able ability to spin a few lies to put some people in the right place. Even an extended riff on Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin’s writing speed (which may be one of the funniest and nerdiest Game of Thrones jokes ever) reveals this penchant for these little and unexpected unveilings Soderbergh and writer Rebecca Blunt revel in.
It’s also the little nuances the cast gives their characters. If you asked for a list of “leading actors who do character actor-level specific work” you couldn’t have produced a more comprehensive one than Logan Lucky. From Channing Tatum (Soderbergh’s current muse) and his soulful outlaw to Driver’s specific and sweet and deliberate as hell performance as Clyde Logan to Daniel Craig clearly having the most fun he’s ever had in a role ever to Riley Keough continuing to be every film’s secret weapon to a host of surprises I don’t want to spoil too much, Logan Lucky is a veritable buffet of actors.
It’s also Soderbergh at his best, absolutely controlled filmmaking, tight and interesting and propulsive without ever being fast. Its deliberate pacing recalling older films with its warm digital look eyeing towards the future. That plus the best use of “Country Roads” this summer so far makes for a fantastic piece of work.