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Indie Focus: Summer action with ‘The Old Guard’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Oscar-winning composer and conductor Ennio Morricone died earlier this week at 91. Though best known for his magisterial work with Sergio Leone on films such as “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “Once Upon a Time in the West,” he collaborated with a truly mind-boggling roster of filmmakers, among them Terrence Malick, Dario Argento, Lina Wertmüller, Brian De Palma, John Carpenter and Quentin Tarantino.

Justin Chang wrote a fine appreciation, noting, “Morricone was a dizzyingly prolific and madly inventive artist, and his career, during which he scored more than 500 films, is much more than a compendium of the obvious and the iconic. Any appreciation at this early stage will but scratch the surface of a mighty edifice that spanned nearly 70 years and ran from giallo horror flicks to classic westerns, and which could apply itself, with equal passion, to the most restless experimentation and the most sentimental bathos. The famously outspoken Morricone certainly had his own singular view of what constituted his best and worst work, and was never afraid to fly in the face of public opinion.”

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Randall Roberts compiled a list of 10 essential Morricone scores, including “The Dollars Trilogy,” “The Mission,” “The Battle of Algiers” and “The Big Gundown.”

Classical music critic Mark Swed wrote about Morricone’s nonfilm works, compositions made for live orchestral performances. “Besides his film music, Morricone wrote more than 150 concert works, which he considered absolute music, many avant-garde. There is a very good chance that you’ve heard none of them. Live performances outside of Italy have been exceedingly rare, and nearly nonexistent in the U.S. Only a tiny fraction has been recorded. Yet Morricone insisted, the time I interviewed him, that it was far and away his most important work.”

Jen Yamato wrote a story this week about how old-time drive-ins and new virtual cinemas have been an unexpected lifeline for indie film distributors as movie theaters have remained shut down. As Lisa Schwartz, co-president of IFC Films, said, “Everybody was pulling out of the marketplace. Suddenly, you had really great independent films that were probably getting more placement, awareness and visibility because there wasn’t as much new product during that period.”

Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow,” which saw its release in the spring cut off by the theatrical shutdown, is now on digital platforms. Easily one of the best films of the year, its story of two gentle souls trying to make their way on the rough frontier of 1820s Oregon now plays as an unexpected salve against the confusions and furies of the moment.

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‘The Old Guard’

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, “The Old Guard” is likely the best action movie released so far this summer, an adaptation of the graphic novel by Greg Rucka. Charlize Theron plays Andy, a 6,000-year-old warrior who leads a small team of immortal fighters. Their newest member is Nile, a U.S. Marine who discovers her own powers while deployed in Afghanistan, played by Kiki Layne. Moody and emotional as well as full of thrilling action filmmaking, the movie is streaming on Netflix.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “’The Old Guard,’ though a good deal more interesting than some of the movies to which it will be compared, doesn’t entirely sidestep their weaknesses, among them on-the-nose dialogue, fuzzy backstory and a conveniently selective regard for human life. … We accept it for the same reason we accept a lot of these movies, because the characters are vaguely coded as a force for good in the world. It’s easy enough to believe that about Andy and her friends — the actors’ charm goes a long way — but you can’t help longing for a deeper understanding of who they are, the causes they’ve fought for, the regimes they’ve aided and resisted. I mean that as both criticism and compliment. It’s the rare superhero movie in 2020 that can leave you wanting to see more, closing-credits kicker and all.”

I spoke with Theron, Layne and Prince-Bythewood about the film. On what drew her to making an action picture, Prince-Bythewood said, “I love the genre, and I love where it was going in the last couple of years, where they really felt like action dramas. ‘Logan,’ ‘Black Panther’ — these great action films that had me crying. … Really cool, interesting filmmakers were given the opportunity to bring their aesthetic, and I certainly wanted the chance too, and so some of the decisions I’ve been making in the last couple of years were definitely about moving toward that.”

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For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “‘The Old Guard’ is based on a comic-book series by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández. But don’t lump it in with the big-franchise comic-book movies: In its craftsmanship and soul, it has more in common with the 1990s films of action genius John Woo than with anything that’s been extruded through the franchise Play-Doh pumper in recent years. If an action movie can be elegant and thoughtful, this one is.”

For Vulture, Bilge Ebiri wrote, “‘The Old Guard’ is filled with such human moments, both frivolous and profound — quiet reveries, declarations of love, dreams about eternity, regrets over families and loves left behind and lost forever — and in the balance of the film, they hold equal weight with the action scenes, because ultimately everything feels connected.”

For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote about his excitement at the way the romantic love between two men is depicted in the movie, saying, “Maybe I’m making too much hay of the gays of ‘The Old Guard.’ I know on-screen representation is only one small facet of how progress is made. But I am helplessly enamored of the effortlessness with which Prince-Bythewood stages it all, with a cool and un-fussed assertiveness that borders on, well, heroic. Watching Prince-Bythewood’s, and Rucka’s, calm transcendence of a tired form, I felt a prickle of suspicion. Maybe someone should ask them where they were during the time of the Greeks.”

Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne in "The Old Guard."
(Aimee Spinks / Netflix)
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‘Palm Springs’

Directed by Max Barbakow from a screenplay by Andy Siara, “Palm Springs” is a high-concept rom-com with a steady sense of reinvention that set a new sales record at Sundance earlier this year. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti play Nyles and Sarah, guests at a wedding in Palm Springs who find themselves stuck together in increasingly unexpected ways. Released by Neon, the movie is playing at local drive-ins and also streaming on Hulu.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “There’s a familiar gender dynamic at work here, and ‘Palm Springs’ can be read, admiringly or critically, as a romantic comedy in which a woman has to expend a disproportionate amount of emotional and intellectual energy to push her boyfriend to a place of bare-minimum maturity. This dynamic is both reinforced and subverted by the casting: Samberg, amusing as ever in his designated role as the thinking millennial’s man-child, may be the big-name draw here, but he is eclipsed at every turn by the terrific Milioti, a versatile actor who won a Grammy for the Broadway show ‘Once’ and turns out to be the movie’s secret weapon. It’s terrific that she gets both the story’s emotional high point and its purest, giddiest moment of comic anarchy.”

Josh Rottenberg spoke to Samberg, Milioti and Barbakow. As Milioti said of the film’s concept, “I always thought of it as an existential comedy as well. I mean, there’s absolutely a love story at the center of it, but it also spoke to these bigger themes of what we’re doing with our time on this planet, trying to escape yourself, having to practice acceptance of who you are and taking responsibility. That’s one of my favorite parts about it. I think it’s an amalgamation of many things, as well as being so funny and moving.”

For the Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh called the movie “as high-concept as it is low-key,” adding, “Barbakow and Siara build a world around a fantastical premise, but it feels real and natural. The infinite time loop is outlandish enough, so there’s no need to mug for cheap laughs, and the laugh-out-loud moments are organically earned. It offers the actors a sense of freedom to be as real or as kooky as they want to be. It’s nice to see Samberg in a romantic leading role that plays on his strengths of sweet silliness, but ‘Palm Springs’ belongs to Milioti, in a breakout performance. Although she’s had an enormously successful career on stage and in TV, this feels like the first leading film role for Milioti that allows her to show new shades of her range. She’s darker, funnier, wackier than she’s been before, but still grounded.”

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For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote, “‘Palm Springs’ is a romantic comedy, but its central question is less whether these two characters will get together than whether they’ll be able to build a future for themselves. The endlessly resetting day becomes a metaphor for a relationship in its early stages, when it’s all fun and none of the hard stuff. Nyles has achieved an equilibrium that looks Zen from afar but turns out to be a means of emotional avoidance and self-protection. Sarah harbors serious tendencies toward self-sabotage, but she’s willing to try to change and move forward. … All of this makes ‘Palm Springs,’ at its core, something a little discouragingly conventional under the cleverly executed high concept — a movie about a woman waiting for a man to grow up enough to commit.”

Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in "Palm Springs."
(Jessica Perez / Hulu)

‘Mucho Mucho Amor’

Directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, “Mucho Mucho Amor” tells the story of Walter Mercado, whose televised horoscopes and spectacular, flamboyant persona made him a staple in Latinx homes for more than 30 years and a beacon to gender-nonconforming communities. Mercado, who died in November, provides intimate access to the last section of his life in this heartfelt portrait. The movie is streaming now on Netflix.

In a review for The Times, Carolina Miranda wrote, “Mercado, as a subject, nonetheless remains elusive. From a young age, he states in the documentary, he was determined to ‘create a famous person in me.’ This can make it hard to divine where the persona ends and the real man begins. Partly it’s because there is only so much he was willing to reveal of himself. … It is a practically impossible task to bring the otherwordly down to Earth. But in these quiet moments, ‘Mucho Mucho Amor’ finds the truth amid all the invention. He is a performer until the end.”

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For the New York Times, Teo Bugbee wrote, “The story that is told in the documentary ‘Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado’ is the familiar myth of a dreamer who finds tremendous fame, only to be pulled from the clouds by the sordid realities of life on the ground. If the film tends toward convention, it is saved from cliché by the bejeweled and beguiling presence of Walter Mercado himself.”

For rogerebert.com, Tomris Laffly wrote, “If you, like me, are new to Mercado’s opulent world of positivity, mysticism, and blindingly shiny trinkets, have no worries — the directors are so openly enamored by it all that by the end, you might just profess yourself a brand-new fan of this awe-inspiring figure. But if Mercado has been a part of your family life and upbringing in living rooms where people used to practice radio-silence to hear his wisdom and musings — as is the case for an enthusiastic Lin-Manuel Miranda, among the film’s most famous talking-head interviewees — the generously hagiographic ‘Mucho Mucho Amor’ is likely to cast a nostalgic spell on you.”

For hyperallergic.com, Monica Castillo wrote, “There are plenty of documentaries that profile famous people, but few ever feel like a celebration. ‘Mucho Mucho Amor’ captures that joyful nostalgic rush his fans may feel when someone mentions his name or shares a memory of when they used to watch him. It’s a feeling that goes beyond admiration, and it looks a lot like when Lin-Manuel Miranda is almost brought to tears meeting his childhood hero. When I recommend this movie to friends, colleagues or strangers, it feels like I’m sharing a piece of my childhood, a slice of my culture. It carries a surprising amount of emotional weight, despite its very unserious subject. Yet I can’t wait until I can share this movie with everyone else in my family and beyond.”

Walter Mercado in "Mucho Mucho Amor."
(Netflix)
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