The Name is Blonde…Atomic Blonde

For years there have been rumblings that it was time for a female to inherit the role of James Bond. 1995’s GoldenEye caused shock for some when Judi Dench took over as M, even though in real life MI-5 already had its first female Director-General, Stella Rimington, since 1992. Dench became one of the best parts of the series for the next 20 years.

We’ve seen a renaissance for the female hero. Wonder Woman has spent the last few months in the top 10 at the box office, and Jodie Whittaker will take over the most iconic role in British Science Fiction as the 14th Doctor. The most compelling characters in the powerhouse “Game of Thrones” are the women, particularly the lethally evil Cersei, her nemesis Daenerys, and the assassin Arya. (They’ve also survived, where most of the men have not.) Daniel Craig remains as 007, but progress has a way of building a better road if the old path is closed. So we have Charlize Theron out-Bonding Bond in the spy thriller Atomic Blonde.

Theron not only stars but produced the film. She’d bought the rights to the graphic novel “The Coldest City” before it was published. Kurt Johnstad, hired to adapt the story, is best known for adapting another graphic novel to the screen: Frank Miller’s 300. Directing duties were given to David Leitch, the former stuntman/actor who helped make John Wick a sleeper hit. In fact, Theron trained with Keanu Reeves, who was preparing for John Wick: Chapter 2. But what helped launch the filming of Blonde was Theron’s visceral performance as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. While Tom Hardy had the title role, the movie revolved around Furiosa at its heart. Theron delivered in the role, and showed she could handle the action.

Rather than use Bond as a template, Blonde’s DNA goes back to the hard-edged spy movies of the 1960s that were a reaction against the camp of 007. Blonde has the blood of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Ipcress File (among others) spilling across the screen. It also has the violent action turned up to eleven, including a ten-minute ballet of bullets and blood that’s cut to look like one continuous shot. The camera twists through 360 degree turns as Theron fights her way down a staircase and out of a building.

The story is set in November 1989, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s told in flashback as MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is debriefed by her superior Eric Gray (Tobey Jones) and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), while the head of MI-6, C (James Faulkner), watches through one-way glass. She was sent to Berlin to recover a miniaturized file hidden in a watch that has information about agents around the globe. A Soviet agent took it off a British agent, killing the Brit in the process, but rather than submit it to Moscow, he’s gone rogue and aims to sell the file to the highest bidder.

The mission’s compromised from the moment Broughton steps off her flight to Berlin. Representatives of a KGB arms dealer try to kidnap her at the airport, but she manages to escape and makes contact with the British station chief in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy). Percival covers his spy activities as a black marketer in East Berlin, though it’s an open question as to which job has his loyalties. Also in the mix is a beautiful though inexperienced French agent, Delphine LaSalle (Sofia Boutella), and a Stasi officer codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who wants to defect.

The plot of Atomic Blonde is a dizzying trail of double- and triple-crosses. You may find yourself wishing for a score card to help keep track of everything. Boughton is almost constantly in peril, but those who go up against her find themselves to be the ones in danger. With her background in dance, and after working with eight trainers in preparation for the movie, Theron shows herself to be a match for any male action hero. But don’t mistake the physical action for the cartoonish version seen in many films. Leitch shows the physical and emotional drain of the fight sequences. When characters get hit, including Theron’s Boughton, there’s pain to pay, and the audience itself is out of breath by the end.

On the other hand, Theron can out-sex-appeal any secret agent in any movie, which creates an interesting dichotomy to the film. McAvoy is effective as the dissolute Percival so you’re never sure which game he’s playing until close to the climax of the film. It’s good to see Sofia Boutella play a realistic and sympathetic character here, after her Odd Job with legs role in Kingsman: The Secret Service, her heavily-made-up turn in Star Trek Beyond, and of course her mummy-issues with Tom Cruise.

While James Bond remains a bastion of unrepentant paternalism, the old “weakest sex” trope is dying away (albeit slower than it should). I think if Bond and Broughton went up against each other, my money would be on Broughton to walk away the winner.

The Third Time is Not the Charm

Prior to Prometheus, Ridley Scott had made two science fiction movies: Blade Runner and Alien.  Each (in their own way) is a seminal film.  Blade Runner was sci-fi noir; a wonderful exercise in atmosphere.  Alien put a horror movie in space.  It was tight and truly frightening; in space, no one can hear you scream, but they sure could in the movie theater.  It spawned one excellent sequel – James Cameron’s Aliens – and two other sequels that are best forgotten.

Now Scott has once again returned to the science fiction realm with his highly-anticipated movie Prometheus.  There was a lot of speculation that it was a prequel to Alien.  It is, in a mish-mash sort of way, for where Alien was focused and a story well told, Prometheus is bland.  It aims to deal with big ideas but does it in such a way you need a primer to understand the movie.

Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie begins with a prelude set in the distance past.  It may be on Earth or on another planet; that’s never made clear.  Rather than the intelligence change in 2001, what happens is a biological infection.  The movie then jumps seventy years into our future.  Archeologists and lovers Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered cave paintings scattered through ancient cultures that feature a large humanoid figure pointing at a solar system.  Since the cultures had no contact with each other, the archeologists postulate that it is a message from a race that helped establish life on Earth, whom they name the Engineers.  With a trillion dollar investment from the Weyland Corporation, an expedition is mounted to travel to a solar system that matches the picture.

The crew of the space ship Prometheus is put in stasis for the long trip while an android named David (Michael Fassbender) stays awake, watching over the ship.  He uses the time to learn all manner of ancient languages as well as indulge his obsession with Lawrence of Arabia, to the point that he looks and sounds like a clone of Peter O’Toole.  Once the ship arrives at its destination, the crew awakens, starting with the mission commander, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron).  Except for her and the two archeologists, the crew is in the dark about the mission.  They are briefed by a holographic image of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the elderly CEO of Weyland Industries.

They land on planet LV-223 (not the same planet where Alien took place).  It is a world of violent storms and an atmosphere that is deadly after exposure of more than a couple of minutes.  They “just happen” to enter the atmosphere at the location of a hive-like structure.  After setting down, several of the crew set off immediately to explore the hive, which they find contains a breathable atmosphere.  They also find the body of a long-dead alien, a monolithic sculpture that looks like it was lifted from Easter Island, and a number of urn-like pods that begin to leak once they’re exposed to the humans.  Chaos ensues.

The script is by first-time scribe John Spaihts working with Damon Lindelof, who created Lost.  Rather than just being a prequel to Alien, the movie feels more like a remake of the plot, but without the prior movie’s originality and claustrophobic tension.  It walks over the same ground as other movies, such as 2001, but in the end the discoveries do not pay off the setting up of such a major theme.  It’s like an adopted child going in search of his birth parents and finding out they’re white trash of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre variety.

Noomi Rapace, who originated the role of Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish language version of the Millennium trilogy, does a good job as Shaw, who is the Ripley of the story.  Her will to survive, even to the point of undergoing major surgery, gives the movie its real spark of energy and humanity.  Idris Elba, as Janek, the captain of the Prometheus, is effective.  You identify with him which gives resonance to his fate.  However, the rest of the crew appears to be there mostly as cannon fodder.

Fassbender’s David is a lighter version of Ash, the android from Alien played by Ian Holm.  While he has his creepy moments, by the end the role devolves into parody.  Charlize Theron’s role is the basic ice queen, which she does effectively.  Unfortunately the climax for her character will have you screaming at the screen, “Run sideways!”  Guy Pearce is completely wasted under layers of old age makeup and prosthetics.  It makes no sense to have cast him in the role when dozens of older actors are available who could have nailed the character.

The film does look good on the screen, but one expects that from Ridley Scott.  After Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator, you also expect an engaging story well told.  That is missing from Prometheus.

 

Old Child

There are certain immutable facts in this world.  Gravity keeps us from floating off into space, we need to breathe air, and nobody gets out of High School unscarred.  The high school social system was beautifully deconstructed in Mean Girls, back when Lindsay Lohan’s name appeared on marquees instead of police blotters and court documents.  But in every school there were a few golden boys and girls who seemed to live charmed lives – and often made life hell for everyone else.

In Young Adult, we’re introduced to one of those golden girls.  Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) was looked up to by most everyone in high school.  Mavis, though, has suffered a cruel fate.  She hasn’t grown out of her high school persona.  She is Polly Pan, the girl who never grew up.

She’s been channeling that persona as the ghostwriter of a long-running Young Adult series (“Y.A. as we say in the business,” she proudly says).  While people in her hometown think she’s a successful author, in reality the series is no longer selling.  Mavis is dealing with writer’s block as she tries to complete what will be the final book.  Her personal life isn’t great, either.  She’s 37, divorced, and has a serious drinking problem.

When she receives a birth announcement from her high school flame Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson, Watchmen, Little Children) and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser, the Twilight series, Grey’s Anatomy), Mavis believes she’s found the answer to fill the void in her life.  Like the plot of a romance book and movie, she’ll return to her hometown, rekindle her love affair with Buddy, and then they’ll run off to Minneapolis together.  “This stuff really happens,” Mavis explains, “Haven’t you seen The Graduate?”

The person she explains this to Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), the first person she connects with when she returns home.  He still carries his own scars from high school, though they are physical.  A group of jocks beat him nearly to death in his senior year when they thought he was gay.  When Matt hears Mavis’s plan, he is the voice of reason, telling her to go home and seek professional help.  But Mavis, the ultimate narcissist, won’t be dissuaded, even when Matt mentions Buddy’s new baby.  She dismisses that with a casual “We all have baggage.”

Theron does her best work in this movie since her Academy Award-winning role in Monster.  For that role, she underwent a transformation to become physically ugly.   If anything, Mavis is a harder role, since she remains outwardly beautiful.  It is her spirit that has turned ugly.  Theron dives into the deeply flawed, unlikable character and the result keeps the audience riveted, knowing she’s a train headed for a spectacular wreck.

Oswalt is wonderful as Matt – lucid, aware, but still caught up in his unrequited love of Mavis from their high school days.  The strong cast, including Wilson, Reaser, and Jill Eikenberry (L.A. Law) as Hedda, Mavis’s mom, has to establish normality in their small town lives for Theron to play against.  They do it with subtlety and realism.  You could drive to any small town in the country and find people just like their characters.

One exceptional facet to the movie is the realistic portrayal of alcoholism.  Mavis pours down whiskey like it’s water, yet she maintains the appearance of control.  That lasts until she awakens in bed the next morning still in her clothes, with an eye-blurring hangover and flannel in her mouth that can only be cut through by chugging Diet Coke.

Diablo Cody’s screenplay takes the standard elements of a romantic comedy and skewers them.  The behavior we may have accepted as sweet or touching in other films is exposed in Young Adult as delusional.  When you find out the reason for Mavis’s stunted emotional growth, you do finally feel some understanding of her.  Mavis, though, is denied that understand.

Jason Reitman is building an incredible body of good work (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air), and Young Adult adds to it.  His movies are carefully-observed slices of life that mine both comedy and understanding from the characters.

And that is what Young Adult is, a finely-etched, sharply-written character study.  Mavis is a person who is easy to dislike, but she is hard to forget.