Tag Archives: Charlize Theron

Efficient, Concise, Satisfying Action — “The Old Guard”

“The Old Guard” is beautifully restrained. It should be more difficult to describe a movie this violent with those words. That’s what “The Old Guard” is, though. It’s a somewhat old-fashioned (think mid-2000s style) action movie joined with modern sensibilities and absolutely perfected. Like the stellar fight choreography, it’s efficient. It gets in, does what it wants to do, and leaves you wanting the sequel immediately. I already know I’m going to re-watch it because it’s going to be easy as hell to re-watch.

“The Old Guard” stars today’s leading action hero, Charlize Theron, as an immortal who can’t die. She pals around with three other immortals who can’t die, trying to do good in a world that increasingly makes that feel inconsequential. Beneath the movie’s more driving plot, this is quietly its most effective idea. When even those who’ve lived for thousands of years feel like they can’t make a difference, what are those who’ve put years in supposed to feel?

“The Old Guard” centers on a sniveling, egotistical Martin Shkreli-alike who wants to capture our heroes. Why? He wants to extract the secret of their immortality so he can one day market it as a pharmaceutical. I’m not sure if that premise is a bit cheesy or disturbingly relevant. It’s not really what the movie’s about, though. “The Old Guard” is about whether anything we do matters, and answers this in a surprisingly touching way in between bouts of Charlize Theron hacking people apart with an axe.

The story is told to us through the classic ‘new recruit’ trope – we learn because there’s a new immortal. Nile was a soldier in Afghanistan one day, and the next she simply can’t die. Since she has to learn what immortality is all about, we get to as well. We’ve seen that approach a thousand times, but because this is done in a mature, considered way where everyone talks like adults and asks pertinent questions about what’s happening to them, it doesn’t feel like it’s ever wasting the viewer’s time. Often, things are explained through action, and there are zero “tell me about my new powers, but first who’s that boy” distractions.

When I say it plays like a mid-2000s style action movie, I mean this in a good way. Sure, most action movies from that era weren’t great. Same goes for most action movies from any era. Same goes for most movies from any genre of any era. The approach to mid-2000s action had a lot of value, though.

Whether “Bourne”, Bond, or Beckinsale, the 2000s-style action movie was usually episodic in its telling. These episodic sequences would conclude with an action scene that either forced a change in plot, character dynamic, or cued up the switch to a new location. They were efficient and so were their characters. Action was tight and didn’t overstay its welcome, prizing quality over length of sequence. The best of these movies rarely wasted energy or contained excesses. They stayed focused on their characters. The more complex the plot, the more the film tightened to those characters to show us how they inserted themselves into that plot.

There would also usually be an assault on a shining, modern, glowingly white techno-castle built with glass that wanted to shatter so bad it essentially quivered with anticipation (unless it was a goth-action movie; then it was an actual castle and stone walls that burst in a shower of rubble if you so much as breathed on them).

There’s an absolute pleasure in these kinds of movies, especially in an age of bloat. They focus in on character over bombast. Rarely is the world at stake. Usually it’s something much closer and more accessible to viewers – characters’ own lives or freedom, the lives of a handful of people, or their idea of who they are.

These days, I’m a bit worn on superhero movies, though I still love them. But come on – none of them are examples of lean, efficient storytelling. I’m not saying they’re worse or better or anything. I’m just saying we have a surplus of them, and not as much of this kind of more efficient action movie. It’s refreshing to have a movie that’s essentially about a type of superhero that just gets on with its storytelling.

Then there’s the other type of modern action movie we see:

That’s the extremely bloated, grittastic action drencher that invariably features the secretly-wants-to-die hunk-chop beef-cheese hero communing with his gaping punctured lung as the driving electrobeat freezes in a drone long enough for him to consider the dichotomy of the release of death and a sudden appreciation for the beauty in life, while we wonder if their sniper will shoot him before his sniper shoots their sniper before their helicopter shoots his sniper before he has a chance to dropkick one more dude for good measure (wussup “Extraction”, I love you!) The point is, it’s also refreshing to have something that is completely disinterested in grit, wallowing, self-hatred, Soderberghian-yellow air, or trying to be Hemingway-but-only-the-drunk-parts.

“The Old Guard” conveys emotion without having to beat you over the head with it. It’s funny and charming without having to turn everything (or anything) into a laugh line or memeable moment. It’s a low-stress action movie, which is not the style of action movie that usually gets made right now. And yet that doesn’t mean it lacks in thrill, quality, beauty, or even wow factor.

The direction is good, the storytelling concise and to the point, the performances all deliver a lot of emotional information in quick beats, and the fight choreography is an utter dream. It’s eminently watchable, and completely satisfying.

“The Old Guard” can be watched on Netflix.

Does “The Old Guard” Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “The Old Guard” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Charlize Theron plays Andy and KiKi Layne plays Nile. They’re the film’s two leads.

In addition, Natacha Karam plays Dizzy, Mette Towley plays Jordan, Van Veronica Ngo plays Quynh, Olivia Ross plays Celeste, Anamaria Marinca plays Dr. Kozak, and Majid Essaidi plays Sadeq.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes. Each of the characters just listed except Dr. Kozak speaks to another of the women characters.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. Andy and Nile speak about tactical plans, their individual history, women in their families, and a range of other topics. Dizzy and Jordan speak about Nile. Celeste is a brief character with one of the most powerful scenes.

As a note, the film is directed by a woman, Gina Prince-Bythewood. I also try to note when male-dominated fields are held by women in the crew: One of the two directors of photography is Tami Reiker, and the editor is Terilyn A. Shropshire.

Getting back to Bechdel-Wallace, the film does pretty well on this front. Of course, it fulfills the three questions, but that’s always only a start. The film respects the women in it and centers its focus on their perspective of the world. In a clever way, it also tackles the perspectives of two generations looking at the state of the world – one through Theron asking if anything they’ve done has made things better, the other through Nile tackling the problems they’re still struggling to understand with hope and fresh determination.

It’s also a fairly inclusive film on other fronts. Major roles featuring Black actors include KiKi Layne as Nile and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Copley, an ex-CIA contact. One of the immortals is played by Tunisian-Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari. Several supporting roles feature actors of color.

Two of our immortals are in a same-sex relationship and the movie treats this as most other films would treat a heterosexual one: the casual everyday partnership of life, the romantic moments, the desire, it’s all there. It doesn’t feel tokenistic; it feels genuine and valued.

The film isn’t as diverse as the world, but it’s a lot closer than most movies of its type.

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New Shows + Movies by Women — July 10, 2020

This is a pretty great week for interesting choices. There are first-rate horror, period, action, musical, anime, political thriller, and documentary offerings. Let’s get into the new shows and movies by women quickly, but first I’ll mention one other short documentary that crossed my radar.

“The Claudia Kishi Club” is a short, 17-minute documentary supporting Netflix’s new show “The Baby-Sitters Club”. It’s directed by Sue Ding and talks about young Asian-American readers being able to see themselves as a protagonist when reading the YA novel series on which the show’s based. You can watch it on Netflix here.

On to this week’s features:

Relic (digital rental)
directed by Natalie Erika James

A grandmother may have dementia, may be seeing horrors, or could be facing both. She goes missing. Her daughter and granddaughter turn up to look for her, and everything starts descending bit by bit. The film’s been compared to recent horror surprises like “Hereditary” and “The Babadook” in its slow-burn approach to psychological horror.

Director Natalie Erika James chose to make the film look as natural as possible, opting for animatronics and keeping to a single location. Perhaps the most striking visual element from the trailer is the primary use of light sources that are within the scene. The result can border on murky in moments, but it feels much closer to our reality than more cinematic lighting approaches usually do.

This is James’s first feature. The Japanese-Australian director grew up in Japan, China, and Australia, and she’s discussed the influence that Asian horror has had on her filmmaking – that horror often comes from restraint and suggestion.

You can watch “Relic” for $6 on Amazon, or $7 on iTunes, Vudu, or YouTube.

First Cow (Amazon)
directed by Kelly Reichardt

This hit theaters in March, right when the pandemic was closing everything down. If you know Kelly Reichardt’s name, it’s from character dramas that feel quietly real. They can be both affirming and heartbreaking. Her best known film is “Wendy and Lucy”, about a woman who’s living in poverty and loses her dog.

“First Cow” is about a cook and a Chinese immigrant in the 1800s. They start a business with a cow whose milk they don’t own.

Some directors can present entire worlds with all their loudness and complexity. Reichardt is a director who finds in quietness the world inside a character – worlds we may never know because we overlook the types of people her stories are about. Witnessing their daily lives communicates what should be an obvious humanity that we otherwise pass by and ignore in real life.

She’s often shown a fascination with harsh living and the dreams and determination of people who live on the edges of their society. She doesn’t glorify poverty, though. She just remembers the people who are often numbers and causes are still people who have stories to tell.

You can watch “First Cow” with an Amazon subscription.

The Old Guard (Netflix)
directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

“The Old Guard” is based on a graphic novel series about soldiers who have lived for centuries.

Charlize Theron has relentlessly carved out territory for women in action films. It’s easy to think this is more recent, with “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the “Atomic Blonde” franchise. Yet she’s been doing this since “The Italian Job” and “Aeon Flux” in the early 2000s. KiKi Layne has impressed in recent films like “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Native Son”.

Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood is perhaps best known for romance movies like “Love & Basketball” and the (very underrated) “Beyond the Lights”. A great director is a great director, though, and can usually cross genres easily.

You can watch “The Old Guard” with a Netflix subscription.

Little Voice (Apple TV series)
showrunner Jessie Nelson

“Little Voice” follows a musician trying to find her way in the world. One thing I like about the trailer is the presentation of a man who’s emotionally supportive of a woman pursuing her creative and career goals. This is something that is still all too rarely presented in movies and shows. Of course, it’s a romantic comedy and musical, so he already has a girlfriend.

We might be in an age of really exceptional romantic comedy series. Just this year we’ve already had the exceptional “Never Have I Ever” (created by Mindy Kaling and showrun by Lang Fisher) and the exceedingly charming “Love, Victor” (co-showrun by Elizabeth Berger). Huh, a genre that’s finally opening itself to the other 50% of the talent pool by seeing women run the largest new shows is doing really well, who would’ve thought?

“Little Voice” showrunner Jessie Nelson directed “Love the Coopers” and “I Am Sam”. The latter was controversial for whether Sean Penn should have played a man with an intellectual disability. The film did cast two lesser roles with actors who had intellectual disabilities.

“Little Voice” looks admirable for its diversity. It does have a lead character with autism (I don’t want to compare the two, as autism is a developmental disability, a category which includes intellectual disabilities but does not necessarily indicate one). Thankfully, some lessons may have been learned since 2001 and this role has been cast with an autistic actor, Kevin Valdez.

You can watch “Little Voice” with an Apple TV subscription.

Japan Sinks: 2020 (Netflix series)
series director Pyeon-Gang Ho

Stop giving 2020 ideas, please! “Japan Sinks: 2020” follows a family after devastating earthquakes hit Japan. Its release was initially scheduled to coincide with the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan (really, what was this plan?), but the pandemic has obviously indefinitely postponed the Olympics.

The big name on this used in all the advertising is Masaaki Yuasa, who directed “Devilman Crybaby”. He’s the director here, but there’s often something in anime shows called a series director. In this case, that’s Pyeon-Gang Ho. The meanings of these roles can cover a lot of different territory. Masaaki Yuasa could just be lending his name and overseeing things from what amounts to a producer role, he could be deeply involved in every decision, or it could be somewhere in the middle.

A series director generally makes the daily creative decisions about the show and would rate somewhere between (in U.S. series terms) a showrunner and an episode director (who directs all the episodes). But just like in the U.S., the level of creative control and responsibility that entails can scale up or down depending on the other people involved.

Does Pyeon-Gang Ho deserve the same credit as Masaaki Yuasa? More? Less? It’s hard to tell without diving deeper, especially because materials advertising the show will clearly highlight the far more famous Masaaki Yuasa’s involvement.

You can watch “Japan Sinks: 2020” with a Netflix subscription.

Stateless (Netflix limited series)
showrunner Elise McCredie
directed by Emma Freeman, Jocelyn Moorhouse

“Stateless” is an Australian limited series that focuses on the country’s abhorrent treatment of refugees and immigrants. Much like the U.S., Australia has a large-scale, privatized concentration camp industry. Human rights abuses and government cover-ups have been widespread, journalists barred from facilities, and charity workers have reported the regular assault and sexual abuse of camp prisoners.

“Stateless” centers on the refugees and their families here, as well as a bureaucrat neck-deep in controversy. It stars Yvonne Strahovski, Fayssal Bazzi, Clarence Ryan, and Cate Blanchett (who also produces) among others in a standout Australian ensemble cast.

Showrunner Elise McCredie started out as an actress in Australian TV, but started gaining ground as a writer and director more recently.

Three episodes each are directed by Emma Freeman and Jocelyn Moorhouse. Freeman is a regular Australian TV director who’s worked on “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” and “Tideland”, just to name a pair of shows that are familiar in the U.S. Moorhouse is a writer-director who worked extensively in the 1990s before fading for about a decade starting in the 2000s. It was the 2015 surprise “The Dressmaker”, starring Kate Winslet, that seemed to announce her return.

You can watch “Stateless” with a Netflix subscription.

Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (Netflix)
co-directed by Cristina Costantini

Walter Mercado was a famous astrologer who was watched by tens of millions. He was gender-noncomforming, yet loved and admired in millions of Latin-American Catholic households. He vanished from the public eye at the peak of his fame. “Mucho Mucho Amor” explores what happened.

Cristina Costantini is a documentary director who’s hit the ground running in her first few years. Her most well-known documentary before this is “Science Fair”, which followed competitors in the International Science and Engineering Fair.

You can watch “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” with a Netflix subscription.

Bofuri: I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, So I’ll Max Out My Defense (Hulu, Funimation series)
co-directed by Mirai Minato

There’s a popular anime subgenre that follows characters in MMO (massively multiplayer online) games. Here, it’s a woman named Kaede Honjo who begins playing but doesn’t want her character to get hurt. She decides to put every skill point into defense. This leaves her slow and lacking skills, but virtually unassailable.

The series balances plot in reality, in the game, and then within events in the game, but is centered on in-game battles and adventures. Since there’s no trailer in English, I went with a clip, but the series has both subtitled and dubbed options available.

Mirai Minato is co-directing with Shin Onuma.

You can watch “Bofuri: I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, So I’ll Max Out My Defense” with either a Hulu or Funimation subscription.

Your Excellency (Netflix)
directed by Funke Akindele

“Your Excellency” is a political satire from Nigeria that asks what happens if a disastrous and unqualified billionaire runs for president, but does unexpectedly well because of social media. Hmm, I can’t imagine.

The Nigerian film industry is often referred to as Nollywood, and it’s seen a number of movies cross over into American consciousness – generally with over-the-top scenes shared on YouTube. Netflix has actually done a pretty good job on including a number of Nollywood films. There’s a better collection there than in most other places accessible from the U.S.

Director Funke Akindele has acted in a number of Nigerian films and series, but has progressively found more opportunities for writing, producing, and directing. “Your Excellency” became the fourth highest-grossing Nigerian film of 2019.

You can watch “Your Excellency” with a Netflix subscription.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” — Best Films of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

What is there left to say about “Mad Max: Fury Road?” It’s arguably the greatest action film ever made. It’s thematically thick and boasts a nuanced story that unfolds its characters through action rather than dialogue. It doesn’t treat the viewer as stupid or needing explanation. It simply leaps into its world and expects you to keep up at its breakneck pace.

Because everyone else is going to talk about it in particular ways, and I’ve already discussed its feminism and how it uses choreography to create visual myth, I’m going to do something more esoteric. I’m going to tell you why the film closest to “Mad Max: Fury Road” is one of the last you’d ever compare it to: John Carpenter’s “The Thing.”

They’re both broadly sci-fi, but for all intents and purposes, they belong to completely different genres – “The Thing” is alien body horror. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is post-apocalyptic demolition derby. One takes place almost entirely in one location. The other never stops moving.

I compare the two because of the specificity in each film. Both enjoyed an overly long scripting process. “The Thing” was pushed back considerably. Because of this, director John Carpenter decided to take the time to plot out extra elements in the film. It meant small details that would’ve normally been overlooked instead got their own unspoken story lines. There’s a throwaway argument early in the film about who had keys to emergency blood transfusions. It might’ve served only as an opportunity for characters to turn on each other and cast suspicions. Carpenter noticed layers he could add to this. He added notes for each scene, including moments that hint the keys’ potential paths via subtle details in other scenes. It’s always backgrounded, and it’s unlikely you’ll notice on first viewing, but it gives you the sense there’s more going on in the world than just what’s happening in front of the camera.

For a film where the very question of who’s human and who’s a flesh-ripping alien creates the tension of the story, these extra details – even if we don’t consciously notice or connect them at first – serve to ground us in the film’s reality. There are stories happening that we only see pieces of, suggestions of. These elevate the horror of a film by letting our mind run wild with the possibilities. Instead of a routinely effective story, we’re offered a more complete glimpse into a nuanced horror world. That wouldn’t have been there without the delay that allowed Carpenter to keep on making notes, to add the details that make us feel his world’s rhythms.

George Miller effectively worked on and revamped the story and sequences of “Mad Max: Fury Road” for a decade. The stunts and shots were already mapped out in extreme detail by the time the stunt crew even started working on them. But this is detail and what I’m looking for is nuance. The film is filled with suggestions about when it might take place in the original “Mad Max” trilogy’s timeline. All the details disagree, adding even more fuel to the concept that we’re being told a myth that transcends time rather than a story that fits within it.

Character is realized through action, but the action is so detailed that it feels expressive in the way dance often is. I’ve long said the best fight scene should act like the best dialogue scene. Something should change for everyone within it and we should understand what that is. This is precisely what happens in a movie where action scenes almost never stop. Most action scenes have a few moving parts – that makes them simple and we’re left to rely on emotional investment to suspend our disbelief. “Mad Max: Fury Road” has that emotional investment, but it doesn’t waste it filling in cracks in its artistry. Instead, each sequence is detailed in ways that make us understand how dozens of moving parts interact together. That’s brave, and it’s the kind of madness earned through years of pre-planning.

To get even more tangential, developers have sometimes said that the holy grail of video game development would be a world that takes place at the level of detail our own does: a block of a real city, where real people make unpredictable decisions that are unique to their own complex motivations, and even those motivations evolve. Worlds can be built in grand scopes, but the way they translate to audiences is via details so minor you don’t always register them in a conscious way. This is the true measure of world-building. This is what films like “The Thing” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” do. They marry genres built for grand scale to the finest detail imaginable on a cinematic level. That’s how you transcend genre, by delivering a world so nuanced, it feels like it could live without the artist’s hand.

Mad Max Fury Road poster

Images are from Nerdist and Coming Soon.

Trailer of the Week — “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Mel Gibson you look so different

With apologies to the 50 Shades of Grey trailer that premiered this week (which for some reason also functions as the ad for a Beyonce remix), I’ve had the unfortunate privilege of reading the book on which it’s based. My girlfriend at the time insisted – she was studying advertising and was curious how it had become so popular – but all we could think as we read each overheated new chapter was, “They’re doing it wrong.”

There’s also the first trailer for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. It’s an announcement trailer, visually stunning but spinning from scene to scene too quickly to communicate the series’ real strength – the emotional battles of its characters. It also highlights those trademark Peter Jackson action scenes that always turn out spectacular in the movie but never look quite right in a trailer. I’m sure the story trailer we’ll get in a month or two will connect better.

Leaving behind what may be the two whitest movies of all time, I’m going to go with the only movie with better bondage than 50 Shades of White and more epic visuals than Lord of the Rings 6: Hobbit 3: 5 Armies (which is beginning to sound like a cricket score): that would be Mad Max: Fury Road.

The colors, the costumes, knowing that most of those insane stunts are all live action…this film took 30 years to get off the ground, and every minute of that time looks like it made it onto the screen. I have not seen a film announced better all year.

It’s funny, but whenever we make period pieces, we dress our actors in drab colors – grays, blacks, browns – when the truth is we exist in one of the least colorful eras for fashion in human history. It’s the way we treat the post-apocalypse, too, and while it makes sense for a lone hunter to be decked in the camouflage of decay, regular townsfolk would be more likely to wear greens, reds, whites, yellows, purples – color would be one of the easiest and cheapest ways to pick your day up. Or, if you’re a road bandit: spikes, studs, and black-and-white make-up cause those are the colors of the skulls you crush. Point is, in the wasteland, a little artistic expression in your dress goes a long way toward making everyone’s day better.

In a cinematic age of explosions and CGI and drab wastelands, you’d better look different and feel different, and Mad Max: Fury Road finds a way to make the barren post-apocalypse a thing of rare beauty. If you’ve ever spent a night in the wilderness, not just camping but out away from every hint of light – even a porch lamp – you know that nature offers a color palette you couldn’t dream of. Post-apocalypse movies should be vibrant. George Miller seems to be emulating this – sure, it happens in a desert, but the browns are deeper, yellower, redder, the blues are thicker, the spikes spikier. It’s easy to forget his first three Mad Max movies – especially the otherwise problematic Beyond Thunderdome – were spectacular feats of color and cinematography. So this just leaped to the very top of my Movies of 2015 list.

Plus Tom Hardy looks to have picked up predecessor Mel Gibson’s weary tics, while bald Charlize Theron with a mechanical hand and day-old Braveheart make-up is a hero I can easily root for.

I just hope the DVD comes with an incomprehensible Australian dub like the original did.