IR Film Review: THE OLD GUARD [Netflix]

The texture of finding balance in a good action film while balancing the spirit of the times can be a tall order. Recently starting with “Mad Max: Fury Road” and then with “Atomic Blonde”, Charlize Theron has upped the game while still understanding the inherent acting needed to convince the audience of her character’s plight. With her new film “The Old Guard” premiering on Netflix, she finds a balance but is able to maintain the theatrical feel. While the freedom allowed in the storytelling might be tricky in theatrical, it has undoubted effectiveness here. Like her film “Aeon Flux”, this kind of picture fills the mid range that many studios gave up years ago. These more practical-based action pictures became the stuff of legends because of what they were able to do. What is interesting her is the diversity of characters, how they work and how the characterizations allow them to both be human and bad ass. The charge of the course needs to be led by Theron and she provides that amply without overtaking the contributions of the others.

This works diametrically very well especially with Matthias Schoenaerts who has done very interesting work since he first came on the scene years ago (his performance in “Rust & Bone” — see our interview here) showed power with vulnerability. There is an interesting parallel here between him and Tom Hardy. Hardy seemed to get ore bulky as his career progressed while Matthias has leaned out which works well for the characters he has been playing. He brings that here as well and it is that balance which is the balance of the film. The movie doesn’t slide into tropes though it pays homage to it. With some flashbacks, there are some hints of Xena for sure. While this might have worked as a high end series for Netflix, doing it this way still retains that movie feel without restricting the talent. The base boards have been laid so the inherent concept works.

Adding to the balance is Kiki Layne who goes toe to toe with Charlize especially in one sequence. Theron is gracious enough to allow sharing the screen like this but also hired Gina Prince-Bythewood who is an interesting and yet wholly suitable choice for this story. Granted the supernatural in a way plays into it but is done more grounded than say something like “Highlander”. The film works well but the imagery is fairly straightforward and not overwhelming in style like say a “Mission Impossible” or even “Atomic Blonde” but that might be a truly conscious choice. “The Old Guard” is effective, lean and powerful in many of the ideas it presents while also keying into cool genre concept and hard hitting visceral action.

B+

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: RED SPARROW [20th Century Fox]

“Red Sparrow” is like some of the Cold War thrillers they made in the 90s but with higher resolution and a female lead. It takes to task the idea of power and uses it as a structure mechanism for Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominica, a Sparrow forced into duty at the hands of an ultimately paradoxical but conniving uncle played by Matthias Schoenaerts who is Deputy Director for the State Service in Russia. The movie has a classical beauty to it and understands the sides it is playing. It is new territory for Lawrence for certain, embracing the power of manipulation and sexuality in concert with the mind. But the inherent texture is that her character never loses sight in what she is doing by either manipulating the audience, her would-be captors or her would-be manipulators on either side. The essence ultimately is that she gets to live her life above suspicion but inherently lonely. There are essences of “La Femme Nikita” and even the more recent “The Villainess” at Cannes. However the pull of Dominica’s loyalties is never quite clear despite that this is part of the construct. Where does the innocence end and the manipulation begin? The genius at times of Lawrence in this movie is that she can switch in the midst of a scene from one side to another. There were brief glimpses of it in “XMen: First Class” but as she grows older it becomes more pronounced. She can never truly disappear, but like Sharon Stone before her, she can walk the line with inherent control.

“Red Sparrow” is ultimately not about resolution but survival in many ways and the bereft elements of character that betray those in the business of espionage who want more than their country will give. Joel Edgerton plays an American CIA officer who gives just enough emotional weight to believe that Dominica might be able to escape. But ultimately the grounded angle comes in the form of Jeremy Irons, an iconoclast of these multi tiered characters from “The Mission” to “Reversal Of Fortune” to “Dead Ringers” who allows just the right amount of plot support to make it work. The key essence of a spy in all elements is that you don’t know they are a spy even if they tell you so, whether you are seducing for information or telling a mark specifically what they want to hear. The music within the movie inherently beginning with the ballet at the beginning precludes the fall which is interestingly enough a parallel to “Black Swan” which was more bathed in metaphor. “Red Sparrow” is told with a straight forward texture while the murky nature of its characters snakes underneath with a taste of dread. It doesn’t rely on large car chases to make its point but in close contact with scenes that bite and allow for the understanding of characters that perhaps have no choice but one.

B-

By Tim Wassberg

Sexual Cinematic Infiltration & Vilified Redemption: The 2011 AFI Film Festival – Feature

Nestled within heavy award build-up and traveling season, the AFI Fest always revels in burgeoning world talent where the idea hovers somewhere between darkness and light.

While the premieres of many Toronto and Cannes affectations graced the perception from “The Artist” to “Melancholia” to “Shame”, all of which release in the next few weeks, sequestering out the more obscure possibilities, most of which have at least gained a limited release, a new penchant of the VOD market, plays well for all involved.

Most of the films undeniably, by design or not this year, seem to mark from sexual dysfunction of sorts which intertwine to reveal the inherent psychology of a character for good or bad.

“Attenberg” from Greece revels in its necessity to be basic but undeniably unique through the eyes of Marina, a sheltered but undeniably sexual 23-year-old who feels like the necessity of living with these disgusting habits simply belittles the point. However when her father begins to succumb to cancer, the steps she begins to take forward reflect a tendency of lacked connection. She speaks of everything she is going to do not understanding like a savant that the belief of the moment is too jump off a cliff where the redemption doesn’t await. What director Athina Rachel Tsangari paints through the dark industrial backdrops along Greece’s coast is a country both naive but also advancing through areas they still need to appropriate. Ariane Labed as Marina has a wonderful innocence and tact without being childish. She simply wants to explore the ideas in black and whie though they never reflect in this way. The “Attenberg” of the title refers to Sir David Attenborugh whose wildlife shows she and her father watch. Their interactions, whether it be through breathing or by imitating the social actions of gorillas, are quite telling of the primal sense that still integrates humans though we think too much of it.

“Once Upon A Time In Anatolia”, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes this year, is a sprawling character piece that wants you to engage in the perilous basic element of life in Bosnia. The piece moves slowly through its tendencies allowing the plot about the revenge killing of a man by another to take on mundane possibilities. The first 2 hours follows the perceptions of an investigation team burrowing through the countryside with their prisoner to find the wanton dead. The suspect, Kenan, provides the most structure because the crime he confessed to is not obviously his doing but his brother’s though the crime he committed is not undue to him. While the film should follow this ideal, instead it switches to the Doctor in question, Cemal (played with supressed emotion by Muhammet Uzuner). His eventual revelation of the cause of death covered up in a tissue of bureaucracy reflects a universe where life is simply chaos reigned in.

With Every Heartbeat” has reflections of the earlier “Attenberg” but with a more mainstream flourish and a tendency of melodrama overdone. Like “The Romantics”, the invention of strife happens around a wedding where the kids of the two marrying elders try to find a middle ground to know each other. The initial paradox moves back and forth with the two main characters of Mia and Frida in that one is supposedly feeling jealousy for the other’s boyfriend as would be normal in an mainstay drama. However when the time retreats to an island, emotions steam, again with a carnal neutrality that causes a girl to stray from the normal ideals of life because the emotions she feels with this new love overcome her. The rest of the movie revolves around her ideas of whether to stay with her fiance or give in to her wanton happiness with the alluring Frida, who knows exactly who she is but usually fails to offer the perception of her true self in basic conversation. The balance works because the humor shines through and the love and hurt they both feel comes off fairly genuine despite the simple and chaotic filled implications to the structure of their immediate family.

Bullhead“, unlike the previous “Attenberg” and “With Every Heartbeat”, struggles with the idea of a man who, by all accounts, isn’t really a man but longs to assume the mantra, distinctly through the use of articificality. The narrative, which is steeped as a crime noir, born out of the rural country, follows Jacky, a man whose testicles were smashed as a child because of the viciousness of a crime lord’s son. The only way to push him through puberty to a normal adult life is by injections of testosterone. However, like any addition, he overindulges while the childhood friend who failed to protect him moves into another direction but ultimately tries to redeem himself. Violence propels Jacky though he wants something normal which unfortunately is with the daughter of the said crime boss. The way Matthias Schoenaerts embodies Jacky is with a sense of sadness as he tries to assert himself as a dog-raged enforcer where his heart lies on the floor to the bitter end never quite finding a way to assertain his idea of a normal life.

Adding to the notion of time lost, the short “The Eagleman Stag” about the notion of youth lost through the perception of a scientist pursuing an elusive bug is truly transcendant because in creating a new language of animation with a bit of paper and jump cut metaphors, director Michael Please makes an interesting dissemenation on the idea of time made all the more ingenious as he flies his camera over paper-created green fields that flow and ebb in the wind.

Although brief in respite in terms of this journalist’s two days at AFI Fest, the interment of world cinema continues to reign through the specific, though similar themed progressions of this movie festival.