Alison Willmore

This Movie Should Make Robert Pattinson A K. Stew–Level Indie Darling

The masterfully scuzzy feel-bad Good Time is the kind of movie that demands consideration for all the post-YA choices Robert Pattinson has been making. In the five years since The Twilight Saga ended, series co-leads Pattinson and Kristen Stewart have pursued acting careers seemingly engineered to put as much ground as possible between them and the glittery supernatural romance that turned them into highly scrutinized international stars. Stewart’s transformation into an art-house and critics’ darling has been well-documented, from the meta-commentary of her roles as celeb assistants in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper to her part as a queer object of desire in Certain Women.

Pattinson has attained less acclaim for what he’s been up to, though it’s been similarly ambitious and auteur-driven. He played a limo-riding billionaire on a journey of self-destruction in David Cronenberg’s chilly, underrated Cosmopolis and then, perfectly, turned up as a limo-driving struggling actor in the Canadian filmmaker’s followup Maps to the Stars. He worked with Anton Corbijn and Werner Herzog in biopics Life and Queen of the Desert, neither of them particularly good, but both indicative of good taste in directors. He was intriguing as Guy Pearce’s captive turned sidekick in the dystopian The Rover, and quietly terrific as Charlie Hunnam’s employee turned respected colleague in The Lost City of Z. Like Stewart, he’s seemingly been freed up by getting to play characters who are, at best, spotlight-adjacent, ones who aren’t outsized but who are perfectly to scale.

That’s definitely the case with Good Time‘s Connie Nikas, an aspiring lowlife who embarks on a neon-lit crime spree through Queens after a violent offscreen clash with his grandmother and a botched bank robbery. As Connie, Pattinson does not jerk off a dog, despite what you may have heard from talk show anecdotes, but he does engage in a lot of other eyebrow-raising activity. He breaks someone out of police custody, seduces a teenager, and beats a security guard into unconsciousness. The movie, which was directed by brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, portrays Connie as a guy who’s not half as smart or as good at big-picture planning as he thinks he is, but who shows a sly animal cunning in his moment-to-moment interactions. His overestimation of his criminal competence is the reason he spends most of the film on the run from the cops, trying to salvage a plan that didn’t seem all that feasible to begin with.

Connie’s adventures on the lam in the ungentrified reaches of the outer borough unfold like a comedy of errors in which our scumbag hero inflicts a terrible orange-blonde bleach job on himself as a disguise and breaks into an amusement park to try to figure out where someone out of their mind on acid would hide cash. Only Connie’s desperate improvisations are rarely all that funny, not when he brings disaster into the lives of everyone he touches — a one-man infection who gets more dangerous as the night gives way to morning. The chief and most painful bit of collateral damage is Nick (Benny Safdie), Connie’s developmentally disabled brother, who he convinces to take part in a fantasy of stealing money and starting a new life together in Virginia. It’s a scheme that lands Nick in jail, where he’s an easy target, before the film’s opening credits. Connie spends the rest of Good Time trying to get Nick out, though the more we get to know him, the less he seems capable of being the kind of caretaker Nick needs, even before he involves him in a felony.

Connie is mesmerizing and awful, leaping from one dire situation to the next like a polar bear navigating melting sea ice. But Pattinson is great, carrying a film that sits entirely on his rangy shoulders, the handheld camera frequently jammed up tight on his face as he searches for a way out of whatever predicament he’s landed himself in. He plays the character as a kind of anti-heartthrob, with not a wisp of outlaw cool to his behavior, and when he levels his battered looks and charm at women he wants something from, like the unstable Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the achingly young Crystal (Taliah Webster), you feel nothing but alarm. It’s a performance that rests on an understanding that humanizing someone and making them likable need not be the same thing at all.

We come to understand Connie pretty well by the end of Good Time, just from seeing how he operates — his puffed-up grandeur, his sense of wounded injustice, his ruthlessness. The film invites you to care about what happens to him without rooting for him, especially in its final act, when Connie and Ray (Buddy Duress), the fellow traveler he’s picked up along the way, kill time in a stranger’s apartment. The sun comes up, the atmosphere acquires the pinched feeling of an impending monster hangover, and it becomes increasingly clear that whatever happens to Connie, he’s not going to figure out a way to fix the mess he’s made. And yet that’s when he lays into Ray, sneering at this fresh-out-of-prison doofus he doesn’t want to admit is his funhouse reflection, and proclaiming his superiority to the “fuckup,” despite the two men being in the same dire situation.

You understand, at that moment, that Connie’s contempt is part of his world view, that he gets his highs off having someone around to look down on, push around, or control. It’s a revelation that casts his relationship with his sibling in an even darker light, because Nick is so obviously vulnerable to manipulation. Connie genuinely loves his brother, but it’s a toxic kind of love, the kind where you’d readily drag someone down with you rather than risk being alone. Good Time starts and ends with Nick, but the film belongs to Connie, and to Pattinson, who lives and breathes the young man’s poisonous desperation. It’s the kind of performance that sticks with you, like a layer of grime that needs to be washed off.

Idris Elba Can't Seem To Catch A Damn Break

Idris Elba plays the mystical gunslinger Roland Deschain in The Dark Tower. It should be the ripest of ripe blockbuster roles, given how much revenge, brooding, and wearing of a leather duster it entails. The duster is key, with plenty of swirl to it for all the times Roland ends up whipping around to shoot something, on one occasion reloading by catching a chamber full of bullets in midair. It’s dramatic, but not as dramatic as the scene in which he takes out a baddie at a distance without turning his head, just sensing the shot with his powers. As the code Roland recites goes, you kill with your heart — especially when it looks cool.

Roland is the central character of the eight-book Stephen King series on which The Dark Tower is based, a sprawling Western-fantasy-science-fiction-horror mashup that various bigwigs (including J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard) have been trying to adapt for the screen for a decade. The movie that finally emerged from that development morass — one directed by Nikolaj Arcel, who wrote the script with Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, and Anders Thomas Jensen — instead funnels its story through 11-year-old Jake (Tom Taylor), a troubled boy who lives in Manhattan, but who’s been dreaming about Roland and the world of magic and demons from which he comes. It’s a confounding decision on many levels — the most obvious of which is that when you have Elba playing some cowboy version of an Arthurian knight, why in the multiverse would you shift focus to an annoying kid?

Elba can’t seem to catch a break. The English actor has been a famous name for so long that it’s easy to forget how few great parts he’s actually gotten. Post–Stringer Bell on The Wire, he’s rattled around in a bunch of supporting gigs, some more memorable than others — Heimdall in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; villains in The Losers, Beasts of No Nation, No Good Deed, and Star Trek Beyond; some voiceover work. The greatest offense of Prometheus is that Elba and Charlize Theron have hate sex and it happens offscreen. He was also Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a great performance in a middling awards bait biopic. TV’s been better, from Showtime’s Guerrilla miniseries to BBC’s crime drama Luther, a series that’s not as fresh as it used to be, but which seems to keep chugging along because the title character remains one of the most interesting Elba’s gotten to play. Elba’s most famous film role is, in some ways, the one he’s always suggested for but hasn’t been offered — that of James Bond.

Elba has been a movie star in waiting for years. The Dark Tower is a lame-duck adaptation destined to enrage book fans and bewilder everyone else, but at least it seemed poised to give the actor a prime spotlight. The fact that Elba gets consigned to being a surly sidekick and surrogate father figure as much as he is an action hero suggests that Hollywood still doesn’t know what to do with him. As villainous wizard Walter, Matthew McConaughey offers up what’s basically a more evil version of whatever he’s doing in those Lincoln car commercials, swanning around in a duster of his own — black, draped over a barely buttoned black shirt. Roland is just as underwritten, but Elba takes the opportunity to bring soulfulness to his barely sketched-out path to redemption — and when that fails, he still manages to be funny.

Those are, strangely, the best parts of The Dark Tower — when, having failed to deliver the promised cool, the film opts for bits of fish-out-of-water business, leveraging the larger-than-life Roland again in present-day New York. As Roland, Elba squints at TV commercials, reveals himself to be terrible at bluffing, and pays an emergency room doctor with what looks like a gold coin before stalking out, bellowing, “Bring my guns!” Elba sells it with the timing and by playing Roland painfully straight, and in those moments, you can see the movie The Dark Tower could have been — probably still a letdown for devotees of King’s series, but at least something fun. Elba alone can’t make The Dark Tower worth watching. But he can make the case, yet again, that he deserves better material than this.

The Most Powerful Part Of “Detroit” Is Its Ending

Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

Anthony Mackie in Detroit.

The main character of Detroit is a historical atrocity. There are people in the movie, too, some of whom really existed and some of whom are composites, but for much of its runtime, the movie treats them as components of a larger tragedy. These characters careen toward an incident that results in the deaths of three people — specifically the deaths of three black teenagers at the hands of white policemen who were later acquitted after pleading self-defense.

The film, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and scripted by Mark Boal, takes care not to channel its account of the Algiers Motel killings through any one perspective. As the city that Detroit is named for transforms into a war zone of rioters, cops, and the National Guard over the course of five days in 1967, the film darts from character to character, circling ever closer to the event at its core.

It pays a visit to the home of Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a young man with old eyes who is fatefully called in to his nighttime gig as a security guard at a store near the Algiers Motel. It sidles up to the patrol car of Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), a DPD officer of self-assured monstrousness who’s shown shooting a man (Tyler James Williams) for stealing groceries. It slips backstage at the Fox Theatre, where singer Larry (Algee Smith) and manager Fred (Jacob Latimore) learn that their vocal group, the Dramatics, is about to be denied its chance onstage because of turmoil on the street outside. It pauses poolside at the Algiers, where two white women who’ve come to Detroit from Ohio, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), are partying and pondering what to do now that their money has run out.

As its ensemble converges at the Algiers, some taking shelter for the night and others already staying there, a prank with a starter pistol draws police attention when tensions are already extremely high. And it’s then that time slows into a stomach-churning sequence in which everyone in the motel’s back annex gets lined up against a wall by Krauss and his colleagues (Jack Reynor among them), who demand information about and evidence of a sniper weapon that doesn’t exist.

Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

John Boyega as security guard Melvin Dismukes.

It becomes a nightmarish feedback loop in which the cops, unwilling to lose face by backing down and admitting they made a mistake, incite panic from the black men and white women who can’t give them what they want. And that panic just enrages them more, feeding their feelings of authority and contempt, leading them to escalate. Their victims get threatened, beaten, harassed, and shot, the camera lingering on teary faces, eyes rolling in trapped terror, and lips whispering prayers. It’s an encounter that unfolds like something out of a horror movie or the grimmest kind of thriller.

The sequence is the focus of the film, the reason Detroit exists. But in terms of its aims to elucidate and create conversation, it’s not nearly as effective as the way the film ends.

After the killings, and after the infuriating and expected trial, in which detectives idly try to pin a murder on the innocent Dismukes and a judge throws out confessions of guilt, Detroit catches onto one of its characters and follows him, narrowing in on him for its quiet, devastating coda. It’s Larry, who wants so badly to be famous before the night at the Algiers that he sings to the emptied-out Fox Theatre just to have the time onstage, fame seeming so close he can almost grasp it.

After the incident, he can’t bring himself to chase the same dream, not when the sight of a white record executive at the studio scalds him inside. We see him spot a white woman dancing in the audience of a Dramatics concert after he’s left the band, a glance that speaks volumes when he has to walk away.

Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

Algee Smith as Larry Reed.

Larry just can’t go back to seeing the world the way he used to after the truths that were laid out for him that night at the Algiers — he no longer feels safe, nor is he willing to participate in a society that might buy his records but would dehumanize him and paint him as a criminal in order to excuse his murder.

Larry isn’t the main character in Detroit, because Detroit takes pains not to have one, but the film is at its best when it crystallizes around him in its final chapter, no longer standing back at a remove but becoming personal, grounding its perspective in the singular point of view of a man who makes it through the horrors of the Algiers Motel alive, but not unscathed. Detroit may effectively showcase an appalling spectacle of violence, but its real power is in its closing sequences, in which it portrays racial trauma in a far more intimate fashion. It’s a film that dramatizes the horrifying way three people died from systemic abuse, but it’s most eloquent in showing what it means to live with it.

The journalistic approach that Bigelow and Boal adopt for most of Detroit is, like the spliced-in clips of real footage from the time, a way of emphasizing that their movie was respectfully researched, that it’s a vehicle for truth and authenticity (or as much as it’s possible — a title card at the end acknowledges that some gaps were filled in with fictionalized material). But it’s deceptive, too, that approach, creating a clinical sense of distance before plunging us into that brutal central stretch in the hotel hallway.

Bigelow made her name with brawny, virtuosic genre fare like 1991’s Point Break and 1995’s Strange Days before transitioning, in her collaborations with Boal, into what’s now a trio of films that have married those big-screen thrills to more serious subject matter. But what worked brilliantly in The Hurt Locker — the movie that won Bigelow an Oscar in 2009 with its explorations of the addictive nature of the adrenaline-addled highs of combat — is a lot less comfortable in Detroit.

Annapurna Pictures

Will Poulter as Officer Krauss.

Detroit is just as dexterously made, but it brandishes its sense of thematic heft and its sense of craft in a much more discomfiting way. The Algiers sequence, in particular, has a claustrophobic intensity that’s as off-putting as it is effective, because the last thing a dramatization of real racialized violence like this seems like it should be is exciting.

Detroit is a film that offers up its violence for practical and prestige purposes, aiming to create a scripted work that will break through where photos and reportage and video have not. In an interview with Variety, Bigelow said that she decided to make the movie after a grand jury ruled not to prosecute Darren Wilson in November 2014 for shooting Michael Brown. Brown’s death and the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, and many others are the obvious, continuing present-day context for the historical events Detroit depicts, but they’re also looming reminders that Bigelow and Boal hardly had to go back 50 years to find a significant incident of police brutality against black victims.

On July 28, after President Trump gave a speech in which he joked to an audience of law enforcement officials about roughing up suspects, Detroit producer Megan Ellison tweeted a video of his words intercut with footage from the film, inviting him to see it, and noting, “It’s time to change the conversation.”

Trump seems about as likely to sit down and learn something from Detroit as he is to abruptly realize that steaks are and have always been better medium-rare — but such is the curious combination of conviction and cynicism that Detroit represents. It tells a story Bigelow felt so strongly about that, as she explained to the New York Times, its importance outweighed the criticism she’d get as a white filmmaker for presuming to tell it.

Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures

A scene from Detroit.

But that importance rests on the assumption — and maybe it’s an accurate one — that a glossy, deftly composed narrative feature from the director of Zero Dark Thirty can do what the live-streamed death of Philando Castile could not, and reach crowds who previously insisted that, actually, all lives matter. It rests on the assumption that an episode from the past has impact the present does not.

Art can and does change the way people see the world. But the combination of tastefulness and relentlessness with which Detroit approaches its subject matter is careful and dutiful and rarely resonant, despite Boyega’s heartbreakingly world-weary gravity, despite Anthony Mackie’s exhausted anger as a just-returned Vietnam vet being treated like an enemy combatant in his own country, despite Poulter’s chilling smirk, and despite the terrifying visuals of tanks rolling down a city street.

The film opens with a prologue that sets the scene for the 1967 Detroit rebellion not in details about the city but in far more sweeping ones, providing a condensed explanation of the Great Migration, white flight, and redlining that speaks to who the film’s intended audience is and what they’re expected to know or not know. It’s the kind of wide angle from which individuals blend into crowds, or into fodder for a tragedy. Detroit‘s most returned-to image is people who’ve been made, at gunpoint, to turn their faces to the wall, but it’s never more moving than when it allows one of them, at the end, to turn his face up to the light.

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6 Movies You Won't Want To Miss This Month

1. Columbus, a slow-burning drama that puts John Cho in the spotlight.

Depth of Field / Superlative Films

Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho in Columbus.

The world is still waiting for John Cho to get the glossy Sleepless in Seattle-style rom-com he deserves. In the meantime, there are the quieter pleasures of Columbus, the beautifully unhurried directorial debut of Kogonada, the Korean-American video essayist turned filmmaker. Cho stars in the film as Jin, a man who’s summoned back from Seoul to the US, where he grew up, after his father collapses and is hospitalized while visiting Columbus, Indiana. While killing time in the town, Jin crosses paths with Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a local who’s a year out of high school and torn between staying with her mother, a recovering addict still reliant on her help, and pursuing an offer on the East Coast that could lead to a dream career. Casey’s a self-taught architecture nerd, while Jin is the estranged son of an architect, and they bond over visits to the modernist landmarks the town is known for. The rapport that develops between them is reminiscent of the relationship in Lost in Translation, occasionally edging into flirtation without ever being driven by it. It’s the rapport of two people who find common ground while navigating the respective limbos in which they’re stuck, contending with filial duty, personal desires, and whether beautiful buildings can actually help someone heal.

How to see it: Columbus is now in theaters in limited release; here’s a list of locations.

2. Endless Poetry, a mind-melting personal film.

Satori Films

Adan Jodorowsky in Endless Poetry

Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky became the midnight movie king of the ’70s with his psychedelic features El Topo and The Holy Mountain. His planned adaptation of Dune never made it into production, but the ideas were so spectacular that they inspired a documentary about the film that never was. At 88 years old, Jodorowsky is still making movies, and his latest, Endless Poetry, is an autobiography at its most bawdily surreal. The story the film tells is a familiar one of a son not wanting to take the path his father has set out for him: Alejandro wants to be a poet, not a doctor. But the telling is wildly imaginative, bursting with the promise of youth and a desire to shake the world; there are puppet shows and dance numbers, circus performances and carnivals. To re-create the Santiago of his childhood, Jodorowsky has paper cutouts of old storefronts pulled down in front of the existing ones, and in one scene has a stagehand moving props around in plain sight. He casts one of his sons, Adan, to play his teenage self, and another son, Brontis, to play his father. Jodorowsky himself makes the occasional appearance onscreen alongside them to offer commentary. Pamela Flores plays Alejandro’s mother, who communicates only in song, and also plays Stella, the fellow poet to whom he loses his virginity, a woman who appears in a flurry of primary colors in a café in which everyone else is dressed in black and white. Endless Poetry is an ecstatic unfurling of memories of a bohemian life that can’t be contained in prose.

How to see it: Endless Poetry is now in theaters in limited release; here’s a list of locations.

3. The Girl Without Hands, a genuinely grim Grimm fairy tale.


The Girl Without Hands

If you’ve ever needed a reminder of how dark a lot of fairy tales are before they’re Disneyfied, consider this French animated adaptation of a brothers Grimm story. Its nameless title character gets sold to the devil by her miller father in exchange for boundless wealth — and when her purity protects her from her would-be captor’s demonic touch, he has dear old dad chop off her arms with an axe. Also, her mother gets killed with possessed dogs and a pig. The film, directed by Sébastien Laudenbach, is decidedly not for children, but it is a fable, and it’s elegantly told through spare, stylized drawings that soften its bouts of bleakness without erasing them. Like any fairy tale worth its salt, The Girl Without Hands has an eventually happy (or at least righteous) ending in its sights. But it never treats its characters as symbols, or loses sight of their flawed humanity, making it really a poetic but poignant saga of surviving abuse.

How to see it: The Girl Without Hands is now in theaters in limited release; here’s a list of locations.

4. The Incredible Jessica James, which makes a strong case for Jessica Williams as a movie star.


Jessica Williams in The Incredible Jessica James

Jessica Williams had a supporting part in writer/director Jim Strouse’s last film, People Places Things with Jemaine Clement. She takes the lead in his similarly low-key new one, playing Jessica, an aspiring dramatist still dealing with heartbreak over the end of her relationship with Damon (Lakeith Stanfield). The result is such an enjoyable vehicle for the former Daily Show correspondent that it’s a bit of a disappointment when the film eventually grows a plot and becomes a rom-com. Like many a young creative attempting to make it in New York, Jessica scrapes by, gets told “no” all the time (she has a wall of rejection letters), and comes from a family that finds her aspirations confounding. But Williams brings a sardonic optimism to the role that makes small scenes, like the one in which she dances through the opening credits, or the one in which she clears space for herself on a subway seat without saying a word, a total joy. Chris O’Dowd, who shows up as a fellow recent dumpee who Jessica gets tentatively involved with, is his usual schlubbily genial presence, but his thirtysomething divorcé Boone often feels like he’s drawing focus in a film that’s really less a romance than it is a winsome snapshot of a struggling 25-year-old Brooklynite.

How to see it: The Incredible Jessica James is streaming on Netflix.

5. A Quiet Passion, a portrait of a famous poet as fabulously odd.

Music Box Films

Cynthia Nixon and Jodhi May in A Quiet Passion.

It’s impossible to describe Terence Davies’ Emily Dickinson biopic without making it sound agonizingly boring. The trailer even looks like a spoof of a costume drama, with a gown-wearing Cynthia Nixon declaring her devotion to her poetry and getting dressed down by her mutton-chopped father (Keith Carradine). But the film itself is rich and wonderful, about a woman unable to hide her light under a barrel or conform in order to better fit in. At the start of A Quiet Passion, Emily leaves school after being declared by her teacher a “no-hoper” for her inability to yield to the status quo in her thoughts on faith. Thereafter, she returns home and pretty much stays there, enjoying friendships and family but retreating further into reclusiveness as the years go on. A Quiet Passion underscores Dickinson’s proto-feminism without turning her into an anachronism. This Emily is an unclassifiable individual, one whose idiosyncrasies and brilliance sometimes cause her great pain as she consigns herself, as if it were an inevitability, to an unmarried life. “I long for…something. But I am afraid of it,” she says. A Quiet Passion is about a famous poet, but it’s also about genius as singular and isolating, its main character burning so bright it sometimes aches to spend time in her company.

How to see it: A Quiet Passion is available for rent.

6. Women Who Kill, a comedy about relationships and podcasts.

The Film Collaborative

Ann Carr and Ingrid Jungermann in Women Who Kill.

If Sarah Koenig and Dana Chivvis, the producers of Serial, were exes whose relationship bled through into their true-crime investigations, the result would be something like the main characters of Ingrid Jungermann’s slyly funny film. Jungermann is Morgan and Ann Carr is Jean, and while the two are no longer a couple, they still live together, spend all their time together, and c-host a successful podcast about female serial killers. It’s not the healthiest of breakups, but then what Morgan does next — romancing and quickly moving in with a mysterious woman she knows nothing about named Simone (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night‘s Sheila Vand) — isn’t healthy either, especially when a jealous Jean starts to suspect Simone might have a dark past. Women Who Kill skewers the trappings of stereotypical Park Slope lesbian life, from the Subaru Outbacks to the food co-op devotion to the scolding lecture one character gets about realistic-looking dildos (“Realism implies that lesbian sex isn’t real sex unless there’s a penis involved”). But it also offers a sly critique of our current national obsession with armchair detective work, and the point at which our prurient interest in real murders, no matter how intellectualized, becomes something internalized and ugly.

How to see it: Women Who Kill is now in theaters in limited release; here’s a list of locations.

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One Thing We Should Be Able To Agree On Is That “Atomic Blonde” Is Awesome

Atomic Blonde is a brutal, stylish action movie in which Charlize Theron beats up KGB agents and has showy, aestheticized sex with Sofia Boutella.

If this were the ’80s — the decade during which the film takes place — that setup would read like one intended to play to a grimy theater full of dudes who turned up to see a beautiful leading lady kill Soviets and woman-on-woman action. But in 2017, a female-centric action saga featuring queer romance sounds more like the stuff of empowerment than exploitation, presuming it’s done right (on top of that, “Russia” is a pretty emotionally loaded term these days). Just goes to show how what might be nationalistic, gazey trash in one decade can be reworked into a morally ambiguous milestone of representation in another.

But the reality is that Atomic Blonde is neither a reactionary neo-exploitation flick nor a boldly feminist landmark — nor is it the kind of film that wants you to think about anything at all. At a moment in which everything lends itself to a political reading, there’s something reassuring about the way the movie’s slick surfaces repel such attempts. The film, which comes from stuntman–turned–John Wick director David Leitch, could really bring the country together in appreciation of the straightforward gratification of cool clothes, pretty people, and breathtakingly choreographed violence.

Atomic Blonde features some of the most on-the-nose music choices in the history of cinema — the kind of songs (“Der Kommissar,” “99 Luftballons”) you might joke about putting in spy movie set in 1989 Berlin. It has as much fidelity to its period setting as a fake vintage T-shirt from Urban Outfitters, and enough twists to render its plot — which has something to do with an executed British agent, a mole, and the fall of the Berlin Wall — totally nonsensical. It is fabulous.

That’s all tribute to the star wattage of Theron, who as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton dons a shaky English accent and strides, in flashbacks, into tumultuous Berlin on the verge of a historical moment. Framing this story, she sits an interrogation room in London defending what turns out to have been a thrillingly troubled time, staring down her superiors, played by Toby Jones and John Goodman, with unrufflable poise. John Wick had immense successes turning Keanu Reeves into an action hero as Manhattan businessman, slipping back into his suit and his assassin life after years of retirement in New Jersey. Atomic Blonde does just as good by Theron by casting her as a woman trying to harden herself into crystal for her own protection.

The movie isn’t subtle about the symbolism, but then subtlety is very far from its mode. Lorraine’s first scene is her emerging from a bath of ice water, which was intended to numb her visibly battered body, then clinking a few cubes into some Stoli to speed along the process. Despite evidence that she and her former colleague were close, she stays cool as a shaken cocktail when she’s given an assignment to go to Berlin and figure out how and why he died.

But all the arctic toughness in the world can’t make someone invulnerable, and Lorraine’s action scenes never downplay the breakability of the human body, even when she’s the one doing most of the breaking. Theron did her own stunts in the film, re-upping her badass bona fides while allowing Leitch to shoot her fights scenes in long, uncut, seriously impressive takes. The greatest of these treks up and down the staircase of an apartment building, and is such an electrifyingly convincing simulation of a sloppy, spur-of-the-moment skirmish that its bloody ending is laugh-out-loud delightful. Lorraine’s battles aren’t always easily won, but she inevitably looks awesome.

So does James McAvoy as MI6’s “gone native” Berlin chief David Percival, and Boutella as punky newbie French agent Delphine Lasalle. I was particularly smitten with McAvoy’s character, a hard-drinking hot mess who likes wearing sweater vests with no shirt underneath and who sleeps in a pile of languid lovers. McAvoy’s big blue eyes and baby face mean he’s often cast in earnest roles, so there’s a sense of elated release when he’s allowed to play against type in something like this (or as he did in Split earlier this year). David’s no fool, and there are indications from early on that he’s not nearly as out-of-control as he likes to pretend — that acting dissolute is a shield for him in the same way that acting aloof is one for Lorraine. He’s a good foil for her, and a suspect so obvious it feels like he couldn’t possibly be the person she’s hunting.

Or is he? Honestly, I’ve seen the movie, and I couldn’t untangle the ending for you to save my life. It involves a list of damning info everyone’s looking for, a defecting Stasi agent played by Eddie Marsan, and Bill Skarsgård as a local fixer sporting a variation on that haircut now beloved by the alt-right (it, admittedly, looks great on him). And then there’s Theron, with her platinum bob and her cigarettes, her assessing gaze and her flying fists. The movie leers appreciatively at her long limbs, but then it leers at everything else as well, from her costars to the neon-lit furnishings of the room Lorraine commandeers for herself. Atomic Blonde doesn’t come close to the radical, norm-flipping vision of something like Mad Max: Fury Road, but then it doesn’t aim to, doesn’t have all that much to say, if plenty to show. It’s a calorie-free serving of simple pleasures, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need.

“Girls Trip” And The Relief Of Seeing Friends Who Actually Like Each Other

Michele K. Short / Universal Pictures

Dina (Tiffany Haddish), Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), Ryan (Regina Hall), and Sasha (Queen Latifah) in Girls Trip.

Girls Trip is a funny, filthy comedy that has given the world both a mini Set It Off reunion, and the year’s best fruit-assisted blow-job joke. The movie has made over $42 million in its first week in theaters, the biggest box office opening in director Malcolm D. Lee’s career. It’s also the latest reminder of the power of black female-driven stories and black female audiences — a lesson Hollywood’s been taught many, many times before, but has retained about as well as Leonard in Memento. Girls Trip isn’t just a financial success. It’s managed to be a hit in a summer in which other heavily promoted, star-laden, R-rated comedies have floundered.

There’s something else Girls Trip offers that shouldn’t be discounted at a moment in which decade-spanning friendships have tended to be treated like burdens. Written by Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver, Girls Trip is about longtime pals who still actually like each other, which comes as a relief after having to endure some more self-lacerating recent frenemy ensembles. Like, say, Friends From College, the Netflix Original series that premiered a week before Girls Trip, and that also centers on the sometimes bawdy adventures of a group of fortysomethings, in this case ones who met as undergrads at Harvard.

Friends From College was created by Forgetting Sarah Marshall filmmaker Nicholas Stoller and his wife Francesca Delbanco, and features a bunch of likable performers, among them Keegan-Michael Key as author Ethan, Cobie Smulders as his lawyer wife Lisa, and Nat Faxon as trust-funder Nick. The show itself, however, is a conspicuously sour experience about characters who seem to secretly loathe one another, but who stay close because it’s a way of holding onto the past — maintaining outgrown friendships like clothes that no longer fit, but cannot be thrown away.

David Lee / Netflix

Sam (Annie Parisse), Nick (Nat Faxon), Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key), Lisa (Cobie Smulders), Marianne (Jae Suh Park), Max (Fred Savage), and Felix (Billy Eichner) in Friends From College.

Then there are the characters of Rough Night, a movie from earlier this summer that’s being compared to Girls Trip for reasons merited (it, too, is about a bunch of female college friends who reunite for a getaway) and not (they kill someone and spend most of the movie trying to cover it up). The pals in Lucia Aniello’s directorial debut — aspiring state senator Jess (Scarlett Johansson), kindergarten teacher Alice (Jillian Bell), activist Frankie (Ilana Glazer), and socialite and soon-to-be divorcé Blair (Zoë Kravitz) — are over a decade younger than the ones in Friends From College and Girls Trip, but are already sick of each other.

Well, except for Pippa (Kate McKinnon), a stray Australian who Jess befriended on a semester abroad — a stranger to the friend group that the territorial Alice immediately treats as a threat. When they’re brought together for a bachelorette party in Miami ahead of Jess’s wedding, their initial intimacy is forced. It takes booze, coke, and involuntary manslaughter to really break the ice between the four women who no longer have much in common beyond their dorm-room days.

Few people count on holding onto every friend they make in their teens and early twenties, no matter how many bong rip–fueled proclamations of “forever” are made at the time. A reality of friendship is that people grow at different paces, they drift apart, and sometimes they lose touch, periodically or for good. But what Friends From College and Rough Night end up suggesting in their acts of self-laceration is that grown-up friendships are immature, that there’s little room for them in a real adult life, which ought to be consumed by work and romance and family.

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Blair (Zoë Kravitz), Frankie (Ilana Glazer), Jess (Scarlett Johansson), Pippa (Kate McKinnon), and Alice (Jillian Bell) in Rough Night.

In Rough Night, Alice’s attempts to stay close to her bestie Jess are presented as intrusive and a bit sad — the acts of a single woman with an indifferent career and time on her hands, someone who’s trying to cling to a friend who no longer really has space for her. The two women do eventually have it out and manage their “aw” moment of reconciliation, but the movie itself never seems to settle on whether it’s laughing with Alice or at her.

In Friends From College, the dysfunctional closeness of the main group is a symbol and a symptom of the ways in which the characters keep one foot in the past, unwilling to fully commit to the lives they’ve established since those days of infinite promise. There are two non-Harvard significant others, Max’s (Fred Savage) boyfriend Dr. Felix Forzenheim (Billy Eichner), and Sam’s (Annie Parisse) wealthy husband John (Greg Germann), who stand on the outside of the friend group looking in with thinly disguised impatience or skeptical amusement, expressing what the series takes for granted — that these people are holding each other back with entanglements that are portrayed as bad habits.

The women of Girls Trip — self-help luminary Ryan (Regina Hall), journalist Sasha (Queen Latifah), nurse and single mom Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), and office worker Dina (Tiffany Haddish) — were an inseparable crew in college, too. The Flossy Posse, complete with matching necklaces, were a dance floor–conquering Florida A&M foursome who got tugged apart in the years following school by the demands of their respective adult lives.

Michele K. Short / Universal Pictures

Girls Trip

When they reunite for the first time in five years, at Essence Fest in New Orleans, their raunchy adventures eventually give way to an airing of grievances about wrongs that were done and resentments that have cropped up. But their reconciliations are deeply sincere, if occasionally rushed (why did Sasha have to shamedly kill off her site?!), an affirmation of the value of these relationships. There’s nothing embarrassing about the Posse in Girls Trip, which depicts the friendships these characters have sustained not as vestigial remnants, but as a guiding force toward being true to oneself.

Girls Trip, Friends From College, and Rough Night take different approaches to grown-up comedy — one’s straightforward and a touch sentimental, one’s dark, and one’s half drama. But there’s a sense of liberation to Girls Trip that Friends From College and Rough Night can’t come close to, and it has nothing to do with its take on the genre. Girls Trip is genuinely fond of its main ladies and invested in their successes, while Friends From College and Rough Night struggle to calibrate how apologetic they should be for their own characters’ privilege.

Friends From College is a series that’s not as dire as the reviews might make it seem, but which does come across as maddeningly undecided as to how much it wants viewers to dislike its incestuous, self-rationalizing collection of Ivy Leaguers. Rough Night, too, comes across as a savage satire of (mostly) white-girl privilege that was then reworked into something more like Bridesmaids — that its characters literally get away with murder isn’t the problem so much as the fact that the movie also lets them off the hook for so much else.

Macall Polay / Sony Pictures Entertainment

Rough Night

It’s not as if status, a maybe inextricable part of a story about college, isn’t a part of Girls Trip too. Sasha hides how broke she is while keeping the tags on her clothes so that she can return them, and Ryan pretends to believe her husband Stewart (Mike Colter) when he says he’s no longer cheating on her so that they can maintain their image as a perfect power couple. But the image management its characters do is a lot more loaded, shaped by an awareness of respectability politics while not buying into them. That’s especially true for Ryan, who feels she’s had to make painful personal compromises in order to achieve mainstream success and look like the “right” kind of black celebrity to land a business deal with white-led conglomerate.

All of which makes the climax of the movie bold in a way that underscores a certain conservatism of the views of adulthood in Friends From College and Rough Night. Ryan doesn’t choose her friendships over her marriage, but she allows her friendships to guide her back to her truth. She lets go of the need to pretend to have a traditionally perfect life, and lets herself believe in the resonance of her life as it is — not as part of a have-it-all illusion, but as something messy and real. Her final voiceover, in which she describes her relationships with the Posse as a through line in a life in which romantic relationships and career circumstances can change, isn’t just moving — it’s meaningful. Theirs are friendships you actually want to root for — and what a relief that is.

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There's A Historical Drama About Gender And Race, And It's Not “The Beguiled”

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Anna (Naomi Ackie) and Katherine (Florence Pugh) in Lady Macbeth.

After she’s married, Katherine (Florence Pugh) starts each day being woken up and cinched into a corset and cage crinoline. Then she’s helped into a dress — her signature frock is cobalt blue and pinned with a brooch at the neck. And then she sits on a settee in a parlor in sleepy, stupefying boredom, watching the clock tick away until she can go through the whole dressing process in reverse and then find out if her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton), will try to impregnate her that night.

Alexander is a stranger to her, a man old enough to be her father and one who treats her with open contempt. He’s the browbeaten child of a tyrannical landowner named Boris (Christopher Fairbank), and he baldly reminds Katherine that his father bought her to bear heirs to his son. In that, Boris is out of luck — aside from some brusque acts of sexual humiliation, Alexander hasn’t touched his child bride.

Katherine’s is a miserable, oppressive Victorian existence, one in which she’s treated as the equivalent of both an ignored ornament and a brood animal. But as the title of her movie, Lady Macbeth, suggests, Katherine is ready to wreck some shit. The film is a corrosive, intelligent costume drama from first-time director William Oldroyd, and it isn’t Shakespearean at all — it’s based on a Russian novella by Nikolai Leskov, though the action’s been transported over to 1800s Northumberland.

Katherine soon sets about kicking down patriarchal dictates and chasing her own budding desires with an admirable recklessness. Her rage is glorious, incandescent, and entirely self-concerned — she’s perfectly comfortable stepping on the necks of those she outranks or, if need be, stepping over their dead bodies. And in Lady Macbeth, while it’s white men to whom the world belongs, the people whom Katherine has power over are mostly black.

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Katherine (Pugh) on her wedding day.

It’s a coincidence that Lady Macbeth arrives in theaters so soon after Sofia Coppola’s exquisite, myopic The Beguiled, a historical drama that takes place during roughly the same time period in Civil War–torn Virginia. But it’s a serendipitous one. The Beguiled, after all, has been criticized for its decision to excise a slave character (a choice director Sofia Coppola recently defended) and, in doing so, to effectively exclude race from its depiction of the dynamics of a group of genteel Southern women who take in a wounded Union soldier. Lady Macbeth does the opposite, inserting race into a 19th-century England so habitually portrayed as all white onscreen that projects about actual famous figures of color from the era have had trouble getting made.

The sketch Lady Macbeth offers of a rural society divided into strata on the basis of race as well as gender and class gives the film a contemporary-feeling jolt, though maybe it shouldn’t — as Oldroyd has pointed out, assumptions about the era’s racial uniformity have more to do with traditions in media than historical research. Race is never mentioned out loud in Lady Macbeth. Very little is mentioned out loud in Lady Macbeth, a movie fond of beautiful static shots to foment a sense of claustrophobia and long silences under which emotions roils. But it’s there onscreen, complicating the story of its antihero’s struggle to carve out a better life for herself at the cost of those intended to use her, and those she ends up using.

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Anna (Naomi Ackie) and Katherine (Pugh).

It’s there, in particular, in the form of Anna (Naomi Ackie), the long-suffering maid whose responsibility it is to tend to Katherine. Anna is Katherine’s most frequent companion, the person tasked with yanking Katherine’s corset tight in the morning and sitting up with her in the evening to keep her awake for her indifferent husband. And yet the power is entirely on Katherine’s side.

When Katherine begins testing the boundaries of her circumscribed wedded life during a giddy window of liberation when both Boris and Alexander are traveling, she discovers that no one else has authority over her, though they might have to shoulder the blame and face consequences for her behavior. She starts small, taking walks on the moors when she’s been told to stay inside and drinking all of Boris’s favorite wine, but her insurrections escalate into taking a lover and, not long afterward, murder.

And through it all, Anna is there, Katherine delighting in all but daring the servant to inform the world about her various delinquencies, and to face whatever the consequences might be for defying the progressively more frightening young woman she answers to.

Roadside Attractions

Katherine (Pugh) and Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).

Katherine allows the handsome, brutish, ethnically ambiguous groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) into her bed and lets Anna discover her nude in the morning, basking in satisfaction at her own boldness. Anna has more reasons to be shocked than her young mistress’s open, giggling infidelity — Sebastian was one of the workers on the estate who, not long before, got a laugh out of stripping Anna and hoisting her like a pig for weighing, with rape strongly implied.

Sebastian first caught Katherine’s eye when she put a stop to the incident, not out of concern for her maid but because she wanted to flex her power by telling the men they were wasting her husband’s money by fooling around. It’s one grim little meet-cute, and meanwhile Anna hurries away to weep on the stairs, with no expectation of justice meted on her behalf.

Katherine is an impetuous girl who starts blowing things up because she can, and who becomes truly terrifying and tragic only when the idea of a happy ending, a previous impossibility in her dire situation, flits tantalizingly if improbably into view. Pugh, who’s now 21, is blisteringly great in her breakout role, fascinating and unlikable and oh so young — the lady of the house as defiant teenager.

Roadside Attractions

Katherine (Pugh) and Boris (Christopher Fairbank).

When Boris berates his daughter-in-law for her poorly hidden affair, he sounds like nothing so much as an enraged dad yelling at his recalcitrant kid — “Do you have any idea of the damage you’re capable of doing to this family?” he roars. He might as well be handing her the keys to the castle in reminding her that it’s in everyone else’s best interests to affirm her blamelessness. She might get degraded and treated like an object, but she enjoys a level of societal protection that Anna never has.

Like The Beguiled, Lady Macbeth is about power and the performed innocence of white womanhood. But in enriching its drama with race, Oldroyd’s film demonstrates just how much Coppola’s missed out on in contorting itself in its attempts to make gender dynamics its only axis. Lady Macbeth‘s main character slides from exhilarating outrageousness to painful monstrousness, a journey that’s illuminated by how her resentment at her own mistreatment fails to give her any empathy to those she in turn mistreats — to Anna, to later arrivals Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel) and Teddy (Anton Palmer), and even to Sebastian, who starts to pull away from his aristocratic lover when her demands get more ruthless. Katherine’s acts of go-girl vengeance are soured not just by their increasing viciousness, but by the way she flexes the advantages she has over others.

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Which is an idea that’s never better summed up than in the sequence in which Katherine murders her father-in-law, poisoning him at breakfast and then serenely barricading him in another room to die. Anna is with her the entire time, Katherine ordering her to sit, trembling, and make small talk over the sounds of Boris in agony. It’s a shoot-the-moon approach to homicide, so hilariously outrageous that no one could believe in her guilt, but the giddy audacity of Katherine’s act is mitigated by Anna’s obvious trauma at being made an unwilling accomplice.

Katherine has such confidence in the other woman’s comparative powerlessness and vulnerability that she renders Anna mute through seeming sheer strength of will, unable to spill Katherine’s secrets or to defend herself. The empowerment Katherine finds at that moment literally comes at the cost of a black woman’s voice — an act of silencing that could be a critique of Coppola’s act of erasure.

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“To The Bone” Shows There's No Right Way To Portray An Eating Disorder


Lily Collins as Ellen in To the Bone.

Ellen, the 20-year-old played by Lily Collins in To the Bone, is a former Anorexia Tumblr celeb. She’s an artist whose drawings about her body issues — like the one we glimpse of a gaunt young woman standing nude on a scale — nabbed her a devoted niche following right up until one of those fans killed herself and sent Ellen the suicide note.

The trailer for To the Bone, the directorial debut of longtime TV writer-producer-creator Marti Noxon, drummed up some fierce advance debate about what it means to responsibly depict anorexia on the screen. But the film itself (which Netflix has added a trigger warning in front of) is far from oblivious about the way imagery can be used to fuel self-harm.

Rather, To the Bone engages with this imagery directly, via Ellen, who’s intimately familiar with the rituals, totems, and habits of the community she’s long been a part of. Ellen doesn’t just understand the rituals and totems that can accompany an eating disorder — she’s cast herself as a kind of living, breathing thinspo stereotype, a girl who can calculate the calorie count of a plate of food at a glance, and who habitually circles her upper arm with her hand, as if to make sure her fingers can touch.

Ellen is pretty and white and emaciated — when she strips down for a weigh-in, you could count her ribs. She subs diet soda and cigarettes for meals, and her parents are well-off enough to afford the treatment programs she gets checked into, only to be quickly kicked out for her snarky comments to fellow patients. In her messy bun and her eyeliner, she’s like a nightmarish minor rock star of malnutrition, less out of happiness than habit, because it’s an identity. If there was a point in which she drew satisfaction from the attention she’s gotten from fellow “rexies,” to cite the cringeworthy term used by a fellow patient, it’s long gone.

Gilles Mingasson / Netflix

Susan (Carrie Preston) and Ellen (Collins).

What remaining relationships she has left — her loving but frustrated younger half sister Kelly (Liana Liberato), her stepmother Susan (Carrie Preston), and the father who never shows up onscreen — are brittle with strain. Her mother, Judy (Lili Taylor), a woman with mental health issues in her past, loves her troubled daughter but retreated to Phoenix with her partner, Olive (Brooke Smith), to give herself space.

Ellen lives in the garage, a college dropout consumed by her relationship with food, with her body, and with a revolving door of treatments. She’s got nothing looming in her future except an ever-increasing likelihood of death. When Susan finagles her stepchild a place in a highly regarded inpatient program run by Dr. William Beckham (Keanu Reeves), it feels like a last chance.

Critics of the film are right in that Ellen is a terrible poster child for eating disorders. But then To the Bone is about, in part, how the whole concept of there being poster children for this struggle is a problem. In the movie, that’s true both for those characters who look at Ellen as a fucked-up aspirational icon, and for viewers waiting for her character to gel into a textbook example of the “right” way to get better.

The idea that people (including one of the other patients at Threshold, Dr. Beckham’s program) glamorize Ellen is portrayed as just as repellent as the parents who, blaming Ellen for their daughter’s suicide, mailed her photos of the dead girl. “That lady said you’re kind of famous,” a younger fellow patient says when cornering Ellen in the bathroom, and Ellen’s exasperation is as obvious as her inability to shed the constructed veneer of damaged cool.

Gilles Mingasson / Netflix

A gathering of Threshold patients.

To the Bone is much less interesting in its portrayal of treatment than it is in its spiky representation of Ellen’s anorexia as a form of addiction. Netflix, which is streaming To the Bone, bought the movie at Sundance in January, and it features a lot of qualities, like quirk, that people have come to associate with the festival in ways that are not always complimentary. Its jokes are never too dark, its edges never too sharp, and its ending, while not exactly neat and easy, is comfortably hopeful. The half dozen other patients at Threshold, which is run out of a house in Los Angeles, reflect a continuing tendency for eating disorders to be portrayed as primarily the domain of young, privileged caucasity.

But not entirely — Kendra (Lindsey McDowell), at least, is neither white nor straight nor underweight; Megan (Leslie Bibb) is older and navigating an unexpected pregnancy; and Lucas (Alex Sharp) is a boy, a garrulous ballet dancer who had a breakdown after an injury. Lucas’s flirtation with Ellen gives some spark to otherwise predictable interpatient bonding, interpatient infighting, and kind but tough speeches from Reeves.

His character, Dr. Beckham, is the kind of hip physician who swears, who’s not afraid to shout slogans in public, and who takes his charges on a field trip to LACMA’s Rain Room so they can sway while the music swells and revel in being alive. The sequence strains for a magic it never achieves in the same way Beckham strains to be more than a source of handsome encouragement.

It’s nothing revolutionary, To the Bone. But whenever it shows its impatience with focusing on causes of anorexia and bulimia and beyond, rather than how to manage and recover from them, it feels personal and messily electric. The film acknowledges that there are many, many pressures that can lead someone to an eating disorder, while remaining alive with anger at the reductionism of drawing a direct line to any one of them.

Gilles Mingasson / Netflix

Dr. Beckham (Keanu Reeves) and Ellen (Collins).

When Ellen mocks a girl for complaining about the contradictory messaging from magazines — “Society’s to blame! The world is so unfair! — she’s being an undeniable bitch, and yet you can see why her resentment has built up. Throughout the film, others float the possibility that her eating disorder stems from a desire to look good, repressed lesbianism, her dad’s neglect, her mom’s mental breakdowns, as if a mention of the right reason would suddenly snap her back into health.

Ellen can’t explain why she does what she does, but she is not immune to the promise that there’s some quick solution to her pain either, waiting on Dr. Beckham to supply magic words that don’t exist, and furious to learn that he has no fix for her beyond her needing to genuinely want to get better. That may not be the lesson everyone in her situation needs to learn, but it’s clearly one that Noxon did.

Noxon drew from her own experiences with an eating disorder in making the film, and while the film isn’t directly autobiographical, it’s at its best when it feels specific — the story of one person’s experiences rather than a broadside about eating disorders as an impossible whole. Ultimately the most resonant message To the Bone has to offer is that there is no one certain way to heal from anorexia, and no one right way to tell stories about it either.

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The Best Comic Book Movie Villain In Years Is Basically Your Friend's Jerk Of A Dad

The greatest Michael Keaton moment in Spider-Man: Homecoming is the one in which his character, Adrian Toomes, turns and slings his arm over the back of the passenger seat of his car and threatens Peter Parker (Tom Holland). It’s a position assumed by adults about to lecture kids they’ve driven around for time immemorial. Keaton’s delivery really seals the deal, the way he tells the 15-year-old in his backseat that “I’ll kill you and everybody you love — I’ll kill you dead,” and the line manages to land halfway between criminal menace and parental chastisement.

Then he tacks this can-you-believe-it face waggle to the end of his bit about “of all the reasons I didn’t want my daughter to date,” as if they’re two grown men chatting on the same level, as if he hadn’t just promised murder if Peter doesn’t walk away. Adrian’s just figured out the guy taking his daughter Liz (Laura Harrier) to homecoming also happens to be the superhero who’s been getting in the way of his criminal enterprise. But the whole scene sells us on the idea that Liz’s escort would be getting some kind of intimidating speech regardless of who he was. The fact that Peter is also Spider-Man is practically a convenience for Adrian, who gets to give a dad talk and a supervillain rant simultaneously.

Some villains are bent on operatic revenge, some long to watch the world burn, and some seem to show up because the heroes would have nothing to do otherwise. But Adrian Toomes, otherwise known as the Vulture, pulls off being one of the most memorable comic book movie baddies in recent memory by evoking a dread that hits closer to home. He’s your friend’s dickish dad, or, in Peter’s case, something even more awkward: his crush’s dickish dad, who treats handshakes with other guys as a test of manhood and whose expansive suburban house seems chosen to broadcast how impressive his own is.

Adrian is the kind of dude who gets a kick out of jokily wielding a giant kitchen knife when Peter comes by to pick up Liz, but who also happens to have a serious cache of enhanced weaponry he’s used to kill before. The overprotectiveness, anyway, doesn’t seem directly related to fears about his daughter, who’s shown to be smart, self-possessed, and well-aware of how dazzled and intimidated Peter is by her. No, the I-have-an-alien-shotgun routine is mostly posturing, an assertion of dominance, Adrian giving this polite young man the what-for while also seeming disappointed by how unnecessary it clearly is.

The best aspects of Spider-Man: Homecoming are pure teen movie, so it’s only appropriate that the Vulture is a grown-up bully — one who, Walter White–style, rationalizes his illegal dealings as the actions of someone just trying to get by. In the film’s prologue, Adrian makes his heel turn from salvage biz operator to crook when the cleanup he has a contract for gets snatched away from him by a new government initiative. His pleas about supporting his family and potentially losing his house have an urgency there that’s gone by the time the movie catches up with him eight years later, but he’s still trotting them out. It’s to protect that family, he says, that he’d kill Peter, as well as to protect the illicit mini empire he’s built — not an excuse that anyone’s buying except maybe Adrian himself.

There’s a thread of disgruntled Trump affiliation running through Adrian’s concerns about, er, economic uncertainty, in the way his not-unjustified indignation of corporate-government collusion crushing his small business leads him down a road to darker choices. After being kicked off the job, he and his crew lounge in the dark, bitterly watching the news about how Stark Industries has basically taken their place in picking up the pieces of a war that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) participated in — an effective bailout. In the words of one of Adrian’s employees (Bokeem Woodbine), “The assholes who made this mess are getting paid to clean it up.”

And yet when Adrian rants about the rich and powerful in his big monologue at the end of the film, he’s not interested in righting their wrongs, but in partaking in their ability to grab as much for themselves as possible. He talks about himself as a member of the working class that the 1% ignores — “we build their roads and we fight all their wars and everything, and they don’t care about us” — and yet what he seems to want most is to join their ranks. His final act as the Vulture isn’t one of war but of greed, leaving his skirmish with Spider-Man behind to grab for the spoils of his ill-advised big job, a scoundrel Icarus trying to fly off on failing mechanical wings. Keaton is so good in the role because he’s careful to present Adrian as not bloodthirsty, not cartoonish — just a tribalist who’s decided that everything is justified if it’s in the name of family.

Adrian Toomes is this poisoned patriarch, a man who has weaponized his resentment and his desire to do right by those close to him when what he’s really doing is bolstering his own image as a provider and a success, to those around him and to the wife and daughter who have no idea what he’s been up to. Which gives added sweetness to Peter as this boy being raised by a single woman, he and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) shown muddling through how to tie a tie together with the help of YouTube instructionals when he has to get dressed up for the dance.

May’s advice to her nephew on how to behave toward Liz — “open the door for her, tell her she looks nice, but not too much because that’s creepy” — stands in contrast to Adrian’s quizzing, based as it is on the assumption that what he needs to know is how to treat the young woman with respect, not to be warned about what he can get away with. Spider-Man: Homecoming presents Peter Parker with a possible (if unreliable) father figure in Tony Stark, but it’s really May who ends up being the best counterpart to Adrian, a parent intent on foremost making sure her charge grows up to be good.