The Old Guard (2020): A Solid Concept That Nears Great

The Old Guard (2020) - IMDb

     Greg Rucka is one of my favorite comic book writers and Charlize Theron is one of my favorite actors so this film already had a lot going for me in regards to the existence of the film. Is it one of my favorite films this year? Nope. This film is really good but doesn’t quite rise to greatness due to bland villains and some pacing issues. Besides those two things this is a film I’d highly recommend to anyone looking for a fantastic action film that explores deeper issues.

The film was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Greg Rucka and adapted from his comic book “The Old Guard.”

The story follows a group of immortals lead by Andy (Charlize Theron) who must seek out a newly formed immortal after they are betrayed they must find out who and why they were betrayed while helping the new immortal Nile (KiKi Layne) find herself in her new identity.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Premise – The premise of a group of immortals going on missions to take out bad people is honestly pretty cool. You get why they are so jaded yet trying to make a difference as you come to see how many people they have lost over the years, as well as the fact that their powers don’t last forever. This adds tension and stakes as none of the characters know when the regeneration will stop.

The Action – The action is very “John Wick.” It is brutal, tactical and is really fun to watch. Over the course of the film you get to see each of the immortals in action and from that the weapons that they came to specialize in over the years. You get to see both gun and melee combat depending on the situation and the tactics “The Old Guard” are using to achieve victory. Suffice to say, it is really well done.

The Relationships and Characters – The relationships and characters are what drive this story and elevate it from being simply enjoyable to really good. I’ll go into a few of those relationships here as they are what really made the story for me beyond the action.

James Copley – Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a CIA agent who betrays the Old Guard to a pharmaceutical company who wants to use their blood to heal people. We see that his desire to help others was the reason for the betrayal and his change of heart when he follows all of their stories and sees how their acts of protecting the innocent lead to millions of lives being saved. I’m glad he survived as he is easily the most complex character in the film.

Joe and Nicky – Joe and Nicky have one of the best written relationships in any film I’ve seen this year. They were on opposite sides of the Crusades and over the course of failing to kill each other fell in love. They have one another’s back to the fullest degree and show us that even in a world where you will outlive everyone you can still find someone you can love so truly and fully. Seriously, this relationship is beautiful. These two men are fantastic.

Andy and Booker – Booker and Andy are the oldest of the immortals and are connected in their pain and loss. Booker knows that Andy broke after her best friend and possible lover Quynh was locked in a metal suit and dropped to the bottom of the ocean. They were never able to find her and Booker after losing everyone gave up on life and betrayed the Old Guard to Copley. In the end after the Company is stopped Booker is exiled for 100 years from the Old Guard.

Andy and Nile – The other great relationship is the one between Andy and Nile. Andy is the mentor figure as Nile is coming to terms with becoming an immortal and having to fall off the map to protect herself and others. It takes her time to accept this and Theron’s Andy is perfect as she is so jaded but it is only because she cares so deeply about those who live and all those she’s lost. Andy’s the oldest of the immortals while Nile is new.

The Cons:

Drags in Parts – There are a few sections in the beginning before the betrayal that film really drags. Part of this is due to how one-dimensional the villains are but the rest is simply pacing. Still, this is one of the few problems the film had.

The Villains – The villains are a pharmaceutical company and just selfish gits. The CEO especially has no redeeming qualities and didn’t feel like a valid threat who could really take on “The Old Guard” once their sights were set on him. This was a shame as a well written villain easily could have elevated this film to great.

As a huge Theron and Rucker fan this is a hard film not to recommend. I have not read a bad comic by Rucka and even in bad films Theron is often times the best actor in the room. The film ends with a cliffhanger as Booker meets Quynh who is back from the hell of being trapped in the cage underwater. What her motives are at this point remain to be explored and this is a time I think a sequel would only help things. This was a really good film and if you are looking for a fantastic action film that explores what one would do with immortality this will probably be your jam.

Final Score: 8.6 / 10

 

Doctor Strange (2016): Fantastic Universe and Protagonists With Sadly Forgettable Villains

doctor-strange

      “Doctor Strange” is a really fun, this is a film that would have easily gotten into my Top 5 if it had managed to get over the hurdle that most Marvel Cinematic Universe films face…as in having a compelling villain who exists as more than just a hurtle to be defeated and if the love interest had actually been more than a plot device. These are problems that this film has right off the bat and I’ll get into more details with the spoilers below. Suffice to say, this is still a great film you should see…the protagonists are all fantastic and the world is a compelling one that I can’t wait to return back to.

     The film was directed by Scott Derrickson who co-wrote the screenplay with C. Robert Cargill and was produced by Kevin Feige.

       The story involves Doctor Strange, a famous surgeon whose world is thrown upside down when after a car accident he can no longer use his hands, which forces him to seek out help leading him to the Ancient One and a universe full of dimensions, magic and threats.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is amazing! This is a world where other dimensions and being exist, where people can create magic from energy from those worlds and the limits of imagination are explored (something I wish we could have got more of in “Inception”). The World is easily the biggest reason to see this movie.

The Special Effects – How the world is visualized is through the magic of special effects and these are the best ones I’ve seen and unlike “Inception” which sticks with the grey of the city this one embraces the acidic trippy roots of “Doctor Strange” and does in fact go “Far out.” It’s a trip and a good one.

The Action – The action is wonderful largely due to the effects and how magic is visualized in this universe. It takes the idea of energy and uses it to empower artifacts and to create weapons and gateways. This leads to some fantastic sequences as reality, time and dimensions are twisted in quite a few fantastic fight sequences.

The Protagonists – I’m not including the love interst in this because she’s a disposable prop like the villains, but the sorcerers are amazing and compelling, each in their own ways.

The Ancient One – Tilda Swinton does a wonderful job as this complex master of Celtic origins who is of unknown age. She manages to show compassion and also bluntness and vulnerability and strength, be old and young and appear genderless. She is the Ancient One and her relationship with her pupils is compelling in how those relationships grow or fall apart over the course of the film. One issue that the film tries to skirt and never addresses is the fact that the Ancient One was was originally Tibetan. They attempt to skirt this with an endogenous female Ancient One in Swinton, and she does a good job in the role but it does white wash a group (Asian Americans) who are rarely represented in Hollywood and rarely represented in this film though the location of Tibet is still used as the home and Headquarters of the Ancient One and her organization.

Wong – Benedict Wong plays my favorite character in this Universe. We are introduced to him as the new Librarian after Mads Mikkleson (villain name is irrelevant and he isn’t compelling enough to call him by his name) kills him so he’s strict about the rules of the Library. Over the course of the film we see that he has a sense of humor, such as when Strange reverses time to save him and the world and he embraces it showing living matters more to him than any rules and he loves the fight.

Mordo – Mordo is a Paladin, he’s all about the rules and what is right and when he finds the Ancient One was bending the rules and dealing with the Dark in order to fight it it leads to his loss of faith, especially after Strange also makes a deal with the Dark as he leaves them deciding that there are too many magicians and that he needs to reestablish the Natural Order that they are all upsetting.  Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the fall so well and I can’t wait to see him as an antagonist in future films. He was my second favorite character in this film, the third being Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange – Doctor Strange is an arrogant dick who using the loss of his hands was the best thing that happened to him since it offered him to see beyond himself and his ego. This is his arc and what separates him from Tony Stark is he comes off as a much bigger dick than Tony even in “Iron Man 2.” In this way his bending the rules even after he’s learned makes sense and why he’s willing to face eternal pain to save the world. He realizes just how much of a monster he was and makes amends. Benedict is great in this role and I can’t wait to see more of this character.

The Ending – Strange crosses into the Dark Dimension to make a deal with the Dark One Dormammu and gets killed many times before Dormammu makes the deal Strange has been offering the entire time. It is humorous and fitting and I really like that it wasn’t a fight scene. It showed that Strange is a mind based hero and sometimes you can’t beat the big bad you can only keep it away or outsmart it.

The Cons: Disposable Characters – The villains could have been anyone and Rachel McAdams’s character could have been played by anyone. These characters exist as props to advance the plot of Doctor Strange, nothing more.

The Love Interest – She saves his life and makes him realize he cares about people….that’s it. What is her family life like? No idea. We here about when her and Strange hooked up….Why? We never find out. Why does she like Doctor Strange? No clue. She is a plot device and the plot didn’t need her which is a shame because McAdams is a great actress.

The Villains – Mads Mikkleson is an evil wizard who wants to bring the Dark One to Earth and have immortality. Beyond that and his falling out with the Ancient One it is never explored further. Dormammmu is just kind of there, an evil Special Effect and together they could have been any Villain of the Week (Like Mads’s character). There is no reason to care about either of these characters and neither of them ham it up like Ronan enough to make it interesting. But you are seeing a Marvel Movie, you got to go into knowing they don’t know how to make good villains usually and this film is a shining example of it.

    This was a great film but the problems that underwrite it as a Marvel Film that doesn’t take risks keep it from becoming more. This is a film that if the villain had been more humanized (as Mordo is leading to his fall) or the love interest had been more than a plot device would have elevated it into my Top 5. For now I’d say it’s below “Ant-Man” for sure but above some of the sequels like “Thor 2” and “Iron Man 2,” as it could have been so much more if characters had been disposable in the plot, be they the antagonist or lover. You should still go see this film, just know these problems going in and you’ll have a better experience all the more for it. This is a film that is standing proof of just how well the Marvel Model works and I can’t wait to see more of this character and his world.

Final Score: 9 / 10

The Martian (2015): A Masterpiece Celebrating the Wonder of Science, Discovery and Survival

The Martian

    “The Martian” is a film that truly captures the terror and wonder of space travel as well as giving us very real and complex characters who are worth rooting for. Ridley Scott has done it again (though I haven’t watched some of his more recent films so I understand there was a drop in quality at one point). Suffice to say though, I really hope this film will kick in the love of exploring space again in the populace.

     The film was directed by Ridley Scott who was also one of the producers, written by Drew Goddard and produced by Michael Schaefer, Aditya Sood, Mark Huffam and Simon Kinberg. It is also based on the book of the same name (that I want to read now) by Andy Weir.

    The film involves astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) accidentally being left behind on the first mission to Mars called the Ares III mission and him having to survive and make contact with NASA in order to mount a rescue before he dies.

The Pros: The Cinematography – Dariusz Wolski captures beautiful scenes in this that show the desolation and danger of space but also the beauty and wonder of space and Mars.

The Soundtrack – Harry Gregson-Williams gives the soundtrack a very “2001: Space Odyssey” feel giving us both classic instruments, synth and even a mixture of 70’s and 80’s music intermixed throughout the score.

The Writing – Drew Goddard did a good job on this script! It all show rather than tell and the times where it gets you information you need (how Watney sciences) it is done a comedic or interesting way that drives the action forward. This alone puts it above “Interstellar.” I really want to read the novel after this.

The Characters – The characters are compelling with only two characters not really getting too much exploration but still have arcs! This is a show where even the minor characters make choices that have consequences.

Teddy Sanders – Jeff Daniels does an amazing job as the Director of NASA who has to make difficult choices throughout the course of the film as Mark surviving makes things more complex as far as getting funding and at one point he has to decide sending the Ares III crew back and risking them all or just sending the probe with supplies. He choose the latter and you get the reasons for that too. His arc involves him being willing to take risks to save Mark, even it means losing his job.

Mitch Henderson – Sean Bean is the man in charge of the astronauts and he is a great guy who is willing to go behind Sanders back to protect his men and he sends them the data they need and the plan that Purnell created. He stands by it the entire time and for him space travel being about people is key as if people are forgotten, than what is the point of sending them out there in the first place? I really liked his character and he was one of my favorites. There is also a point where he explains the Council of Elrond where Purnell’s idea is first discussed…which is a great “Lord of the Rings” callback.

Vincent Kapoor – Chiwetel Ejiofor is truly a master of his craft as he plays a guy who isn’t much of a people person but truly becomes invested in people beyond just the idea of travel and missions over the course of the film. He is very much the Vulcan Spock to Sanders being Kirk and he is there supporting Mark through the course of his isolation on Mars.

Rich Purnell – Donald Glover plays the man who comes up with the idea of using the Ares III to save Mark and is not a people person at all as he doesn’t even register his non-communication with his boss or the director of NASA. He is a lot of fun and was my favorite character in the film as he was fully in to finding a way to bring Mark home and was a put of an eclectic scientist.

Ares III crew – Two of the crew fall in love and we see it slowly grow over the course of the film and when is a funny dad. These characters don’t receive the same level of development as Ramirez the pilot and Lewis the leader though.

Rick Martinez – Michael Pena is wonderful as Martinez who is the pilot as well as Mark’s best friend. He is a guy who jokes around, is ex-military and loves what he does. He is the one who helps the others realize what it means to go back and he is willing to leave his wife and son behind longer to bring back Mark as he knows Mark would do the same to him. He has a strong moral code and is the glue that holds the crew together. He is also the clown and Pena’s wonderful sense of humor has a chance to come out.

Melissa Lewis – Jessica Chastain plays the most serious character in the film besides Jeff Daniels’s Sanders. She carries guilt over leaving Mark behind and this drives her to action and risking herself in the end to save Mark as she won’t risk her crew. She is a great commander for this reason and we get to see her tender side with her husband as well as her closeness to Mark who is her closest friend on the mission too. Her arc is moving past her guilt to help save Mark.

Mark Watney – Watney is a sarcastic botanist and Damon truly carries this film. In this we see him have to survive in impossible conditions using only the resources NASA left behind and that Mars has. He does a great job too as we see him use Botany to grow potatoes using his own crap and the Mars soil and we later see him “Science the shit” out of everything around him in order to survive. In the end he survives and he truly owns it too as we see it is his willingness to take risks that brought him out there in the first place. Him swearing at NASA for not telling his crew he was alive was brilliant too as on multiple occasions we see he isn’t a fan of authority at all and enjoys having a good time being “the best.” His arc is facing death and moving past it to find a solution each time.

Space Travel is Wondrous, Dangerous and Worth It – This is the core message of the film as at the end Mark is teaching new astronauts in training and tells them that message. He also has no regrets as he loves what he does and what he did and is a huge promoter of more missions as he knows it is the future.

The Strength of the Human Will – There are a lot times characters want to give up, but it is when they face the challenges and rise above them that they are able to find ways to solve each of the crises they face.

This is easily one of the greatest films of the year and one I’d highly recommend. I plan to add the book to my reading list and I will be eventually buying and seeing this film again as it truly captures so much of what I love about this galaxy, space travel, adventure and science fiction and all the possibilities of the future that come with it. I’m rooting for us eventually colonizing Mars and I hope this movie will ignite the interest in space travel and colonization again.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10. A nearly perfect film.