Monday, July 20, 2020

The Good Fight, and The Old Guard

Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne in The Old Guard (2020), now streaming on Netflix.

This review contains spoilers.

Following up on the movie recommendations of friends during the pandemic has kept me merrily occupied, especially when art houses are offering such interesting streaming options (like the Jacques Becker and Claude Sautet movies on tap at Film Forum) and Met Opera digs into its archives for a different production every twenty-four hours. I urge those of you who have been enjoying these and other treasures to show your appreciation by making donations to help keep these vital institutions alive. That list should also include San Francisco Opera, which has shared some truly dazzling work; San Francisco Ballet, which streamed a short piece every week until the conclusion of its official season; and Mint Theatre Company. Manhattan’s repository for obscure American and English plays, which is currently running three of its recent revivals. My normal New York theatregoing excursions don’t include visits to the Mint; based on the quality of the productions I’ve streamed over this weekend, that’s a mistake I hope to rectify when live theatre has finally shaken free of the shackles of Covid-19.

Though the pipeline for future movies has been clogged by the virus, at the moment quite a few worthy new ones are available; some were released briefly in theatres before the lockdown and others went straight to Prime or Netflix. The best of them is Miss Juneteenth (Prime), an impeccably observed small-scale picture by a gifted new filmmaker, Channing Godfrey Peoples, that’s set in an African American community in Fort Worth during an annual teen beauty contest. It features a first-rate performance by Nicole Beharie as a woman who won the contest in her youth and is determined that her fifteen-year-old daughter (Alexis Chikaeze), who professes no interest, should follow in her footsteps. A subtle exploration of class in a black working-class neighborhood, Miss Juneteenth is warm-hearted and unstintingly generous toward all its characters. Alice Wu’s The Half of It (Netflix) is an adolescent reworking of Cyrano de Bergerac – not the first – that depicts a small town in the Pacific Northwest with something like the eye of an immigrant Asian Preston Sturges. The heroine, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a brilliant high-school senior who lives with her widowed, reclusive Chinese father and keeps herself going with an illicit paper-writing business, agrees to pen letters for a classmate (Daniel Diemer) smitten with the daughter (Alexxis Lemire) of the local minister; he has no idea that the romantic sentiments in these poetic missives are Ellie’s own. The movie is uneven – some of the scenes are awkward, and the big set-piece climax is something of a fiasco – but it’s a charmer, and Diemer gives an ineffable sweet-quirky performance. Catherine Deneueve and Juliette Binoche do superlative work in The Truth (Prime), the Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda’s first international project, about a fraught reunion between a famous French film actress and her screenwriter daughter, who brings her American husband (Ethan Hawke) and their little girl to the set of her mother’s latest picture. Agniezka Holland’s devastating and lyrically filmed Mr. Jones (Prime) tells the story of the uncovering of the story of Stalin’s man-made famine in the Ukraine by the self-invented Welch journalist Gareth Jones (an impressive piece of acting by James Norton).

The most sheerly enjoyable movie I’ve seen so far this year is The Old Guard (Netflix), adapted by Greg Rucka from his graphic novel series and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. If you don’t know the series and you’ve managed to avoid even the tag line in the entry, stop reading this review right now and come back after you’ve watched the film; I’d be happy if most of my readers experienced the movie’s biggest surprise – which comes about fifteen minutes in – the way I did.  The Old Guard begins in the style of a realist political thriller about an international group of covert operatives – Andy (Charlize Theron), Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) – who come together, at the behest of a do-gooder named Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), to track down a group of kidnaped Sudanese schoolgirls. But the mission turns out to be a hoax: Copley’s information leads the quartet into a trap. Then, after a crew of assassins has mowed all four of them down, they rise up again and defeat their enemies. We discover that Andy, Booker, Joe and Nicky are immortals who have been banding together for centuries against the forces of evil, and Copley has been researching them; he’s worked out more about their purpose on earth than even they seem aware of. He is truly a good man, but the agonizing death of his wife from cancer has led him into an alliance with a corporate prodigy named Merrick (Harry Melling) whose ambition to find the cure for cancer and other diseases has blinded Copley to his more basic motives, power and profit. Copley films the immortals’ battle with the assassins and relays the evidence to Merrick, who wants to use them as lab rats for his company’s scientific research. What Copley doesn’t know is that, for the first time in centuries, a new immortal has appeared on the scene: Nile (Kiki Layne), a Marine in Afghanistan who comes to life again after a terrorist slashes her throat. Since Nile is bound to the four veterans by a psychic link as soon as she undergoes her debut resurrection, Andy is able to track her down and initiate her – initially against Nile’s wishes – into the group.

Charlize Theron in The Old Guard (2020).

Rucka’s screenplay is ingenious. It’s also, like all the best fantasy-adventures, emotional. He and Prince-Bythewood balance the immortals’ unstinting commitment to their missions, which define them, against a sense of melancholy and world-weariness that we see in both Andy – who laments the fact that, after all these centuries, the world seems to be getting worse rather than better – and Booker, who warns Nile about the dangers of becoming too close to mortals and whose own losses long ago became part of the fabric of his personality. Theron and Schoenaerts play off each other beautifully. He’s an actor of tremendous feeling and economy of expression; he gave the best performance I saw by a male actor last year, as a hard-case convict humanized by his relationship with a wild horse in The Mustang. Theron can be unyielding on screen, but she was terrific as Megyn Kelly in Bombshell, a vastly entertaining turned-upside-down newspaper picture that, when it came out at Christmas, got far less attention than much less resourceful, more bombastic award contenders like The Irishman and Little Women. Watching her in The Old Guard, I thought at first that she was giving the same fearless-warrior performance she’d given in Mad Max: Fury Road and the unfortunate Prometheus, but Andy’s cynicism and stoicism are protective layers, and Theron (with the help of the filmmakers, of course) takes us underneath them. I think it’s the best work she’s done.

Kiki Layne was a compelling camera subject as the pregnant heroine of Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, but the movie was so wrongheaded that none of the actors seemed plausible for more than a scene or two, and I couldn’t tell whether or not she had talent. It’s clear from The Old Guard that she does. Rather than positioning Nile’s vulnerability inside her feistiness, she weaves them together like threads in a shawl, so you never know which one she’s going to turn toward the camera. She’s not quite like any other young actress I’ve seen in an adventure movie. As the ages-old young lovers Joe and Nicky, Kenzari and Marinelli succeed in being simultaneously witty and romantic. The only member of the cast I didn’t respond to was Melling (Dudley in the Harry Potter movies). That’s largely the fault of the way the character is conceived, though Melling’s cartoonishness exacerbates the problem: he seems to have come from some other movie. Merrick is so transparently narcissistic that you can’t buy the idea that even in his grief Copley could have mistaken him for an altruist.

Prince-Bythewood showed a talent for storytelling and coaching actors in her first feature, the 2000 Love and Basketball (with Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps), and she developed it in her 2008 adaptation of the Sue Monk Kidd bestseller The Secret Life of Bees and in Beyond the Lights in 2014. (I haven’t seen her TV movie Disappearing Acts, the first thing she directed after Love and Basketball.) The Secret Life of Bees is sentimental and preachy like the source material, but – again like the book – you can’t help getting caught up in it, and there’s a lot of fine acting – by Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo and Paul Bettany.  Beyond the Lights is an absorbing glossy melodrama with a rock-and-roll setting and strong mix-and-match performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a star and Minnie Driver as her overbearing mother. (Driver is astonishingly good.) But The Old Guard is something else again; it’s in a different category from Prince-Bythewood’s earlier movies, all of which she wrote herself. Rucka’s script grounds her, while as a director she’s grown by leaps and bounds in terms of shaping sequences and locating the right style for them – a special challenge in a movie that mixes realism and fantasy. The Old Guard is a completely satisfying entertainment, like The Mask of Zorro or The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. The final scene sets us up for a sequel.  I can hardly wait.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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