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3 of This Year’s Best: Atomic Blonde, Brigsby Bear, Logan Lucky

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.

Atomic Blonde

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.

Brigsby Bear

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.

Logan Lucky

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.


The Worst and, more importantly, THE BEST of 2017, so far

So, as I am the grand arbiter of all things film, I’m officially calling the summer movie season at its close. Alas Logan Lucky, The Glass Castle, or Annabelle: Creation, you’re all part of the fall movie season. However will you survive?

And at the close of summer movie season, we’re essentially halfway through the movie year. I know we’re more than halfway through the calendar year, but trust me, that back half is always as packed as it gets. There’ll end up being things that are Oscar nominees that aren’t even on our radar right now. The worst movie of the year is likely still yet to come (though it’s hard to imagine right now).

But since I’m a fiend for lists, let’s make one, shall we? Let’s give a few check-ins and see where we are, starting with the worst (because it gets the attention) before taking a full celebration of the best.

Bottom 5 Films of 2017 So Far

5) The Dark Tower

Idris Elba

Ahh, The Dark Tower. The best franchise that will never quite be. Based on Stephen King’s series of epic fantasy western Lovecraftian meta-novels, some much smarter studio could have had a new Game of Thrones on its hands. Alas, it was in the hands of Sony and they instead produced a fall flat on its face. A mess of bad studio production, The Dark Tower wastes its actors, murders its pacing, and takes all the material and tosses it out the window for a mid-90s adaptation premise. Any film that features Matthew McConaughey saying “I see you’re still impervious to my magicks” with a straight face has an uphill battle. The Dark Tower doesn’t win it.

4) The Circle


A bland mess of technophobia, I really just feel bad for the people involved here. The Circle is Black Mirror without the brains or heart, an aesthetic rip-off by a huge number of people who should be able to make some better stamp. Staring a pitch-perfect satire of late capitalism in the face, The Circle is content to shake its fist at social media and ultimately end up going nowhere.

3) Transformers: The Last Knight


Look, who the living fuck expects anything out of this franchise at this point? The best Transformers has ever been able to aspire to is Bay’s weird hypercompetencies managing to shine through the material. But when they don’t, it’s the same thing that happens every goddamned time: A mess of story with awful design with a runtime that lasts for aeons.

2) Ghost in the Shell


A pile-up of decisions so bad that you’re more baffled that it ever happened than mad that someone chose to do it. That all said, this is a film that was never going to be great and still manages to enrage far above its station. A messy script, terrible direction, and boring setpieces would sink any movie, but a movie that white-washes like this one does deserves all the ire that can be thrown. When your material is so fertile with intellect, you can’t be this fucking stupid in putting it together.

1) The Book of Henry


Colin Trevorrow is a rare sort of filmmaker, one who in a past era would have perhaps been run out of town after town after the people found out his snake oil elixirs just weren’t working. The Book of Henry is his raw nerve put on screen. Excessively manipulative, baffling in every plot point put on screen, and a masterpiece of inhuman behavior, seemingly put together by a man who’s never met a human but is fairly certain he knows how they work. Fuck this movie.

The Fate of the Furious is a deeply enjoyable ride that reveals some risky turns ahead

The Fast and the Furious is America’s James Bond franchise.

Certainly not through a shared love of spycraft, that’s a later affectation of the Fast & the Furious franchise. And certainly not through similar modes of operations as even at its biggest and most ridiculous, James Bond is practically French art cinema compared to the blaringly loud and over-the-top Fast & Furious. And certainly not through a shared freedom from continuity, the James Bond films keep themselves disconnected while the Fast & Furious films are dependent on continuity in a way that constantly remains a surprise even to fans.

No, it’s because both franchises are fundamentally founded on an ethos. A mode of operation that kind of works with whatever chemicals mix together. A character-relationship-based narrative model with an action style that’s a mix of practical stunts and barely connected with reality insanity.

It also means that ethos is the guiding principle for the franchise, and that unlike many series, no individual film can necessarily kill it. This is true of Bond, and this is true of The Fast & The Furious. The direction matters and should be examined, but at this point, the individual films exist outside the health of the overall franchise. The more mixed reception of The Fate of the Furious has ultimately no effect, there is more to come no matter what we do.

I do this mostly to set up the lens through which I evaluate a Fast and the Furious film. How does it operate within the franchise’s ethos and how does it steer the rest of the franchise forward? There’s an acceptance at this point that we’ll have more, so what does that mean for it all?

Unlike many, I’m honestly rather fond of The Fate of the Furious‘ own individual operation. It pushes this franchise perhaps further from reality than it ever has been before, accepting the more deeply superheroic operations of this universe at this point matters. But it maintains a sense of fun that’s wholly unique to this franchise, a perhaps non-stop thrill ride that adheres to the particular action pleasure of The Fast & The Furious.

But all that comes with pause. Paul Walker’s absence is revealing a hole in the current operation of the franchise, and director F. Gary Gray hasn’t quite found how to fill it. An unsteady hand at the wheel exposes the flaws in this franchise’s latter day approach, and where the flaws in its ethos can be shown.

After the events of Furious 7, Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) have taken to Cuba for a honeymoon, getting away from it all. A mysterious hacker named Cipher (Charlize Theron) quickly plunges them back in as she turns Dom against his friends and family as he becomes her pawn. The team, led by Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and back under the direction of Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his new assistant (Scott Eastwood), must battle against Dom while trying to stop whatever nefarious ends Cipher ultimately has.

I’m pleased to report that The Fate of the Furious at least manages to keep and meet the most visceral pleasures of its predecessors. Of course in its action sequences, which continue a sort of insane and exciting escalationism as our heroes beat the living shit out folks in a prison riot, have a Mad Max-esque chase through Siberian ice, and deal with “zombies,” which is something that must be seen to be believed.

But it’s also in the sense of fun and the weird sentimentalism this series applies to the misfits at its core. Dwayne Johnson continues to show why he makes the big bucks for films like this, and the addition of a real-deal foil for him in the return of Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), now working for the good guys as a sort of hard-edged variation on his character from Spy. Your mileage absolutely may vary, but Statham’s gifts come in being badass and kind of a goofy physical comedian, so this totally works for me.

At its heart, there’s still a sweetness. The Fate of the Furious takes a particular interest in looking at these relationships by pulling them apart and seeing how they feel about each other. There’s a legit pain in watching any of them turn on each other and the tone of that is well-handled, sweet and caring without ever plunging too far over the edge into treacle.

But speaking of those relationships, let’s talk about the big hole at the center. Brian and Dom (Brian, in particular) was the beating heart at the core of this franchise and his absence is felt. Dom was always most interesting in his relationship with Brian, and without him, the franchise feels lost as to what to do with his character. It gets away with it this time, separating him and examining from that direction, but the clearest thing is that without Brian this series is having an identity crisis that Scott Eastwood sure as shit can’t fill.

I spoke about this an ethos-based franchise, and that ethos is irrespective of who exactly is filling out its roles. But Brian and Dom are that central character relationship at the heart of its ethos and right now, the franchise doesn’t have a replacement. It’s possible that Shaw and Hobbs could be it, but there’s not enough there to believe that one just yet.

It also comes down to that without those core relationships, they’ve gotta have a better villain (this is why the MCU gets away with its bad villains). Charlize Theron is clearly having a ton of fun as Cipher, but the character is fairly bog-standard and one-dimensional as a villain, one of those ill-defined plans that’s more worthy of Die Another Day than anything.

Without any central core, it also means the increasing escalation of the franchise is missing its grounding. There are points where the insanity starts to ring hollow, no character core keeping that big, loud action interesting.

This is compounded by F. Gary Gray being a far less steady action hand than Justin Lin or James Wan. His sense of space and direction in his action scenes is much more amorphous, he doesn’t have the clear-eyed geography that Lin or Wan had, these action scenes feel much more sloppy in their direction, which is problematic for a franchise where these are so foundational.

The point of this is that if we aren’t going to fix the character relationships just yet, there has to be a steadier hand guiding this franchise. I’m sure we’ll have a different director for Fast 9: Dom’s Inferno, all of this needs to be kept in mind.

But flawed and worrying as it may be for The Fast and The Furious as a whole, The Fast of the Furious keeps plenty of its own pleasures, a sort of visceral, never-wipe-a-smile-off-your-face fun that is so unique to this franchise. But knowing that we’ve got more to come, there’s a few big flaws here that start to concern me in a franchise I do have such a deep soft spot for.

Grade: B