History Repeating: Film Diary #3

Today, tomorrow, yesterday...it's all the same.

Like many people around the world, I’ve been stuck at home for the better part of four months now. Things are weird…and stressful…and weird. Much of this time has been dedicated to entertaining/feeding/educating/feeding/potty training/feeding/humoring a rampaging toddler who shows me no mercy. Needless to say, the days have been long, but the hours have been longer.

Parenting in the time of quarantine has become all about routine, or at least trying to figure out which routines are possible given the circumstances. Mine goes something like this - rinse, wash 3T clothing, and repeat. During this strange and surreal period, my capacity for recognizing moments of deja vu has become quite high. Past memories feel like they’ve just happened, and the present moment somehow feels more distant than ever.

Strangely, the last three major studio films I’ve watched, all recently released on various streaming platforms, also seem to be grappling with the stressful weight of time and history on their shoulders, the way past events both inform and produce doubt about the intense, beguiling present moment. Here are my equally perplexing thoughts on the films, as half-finished and sleep-deprived as I currently feel.

The Old Guard (Netflix)

I’ve written a good deal about director Gina Prince-Bythewood in the past. Her feature films and television work are intimate melodramas occurring within the larger eco-systems of pop culture and sports. She fuses together tonally divergent genres to create a more inclusive space for characters struggling to overcome their emotional entanglements, both with each other and society at large.

When it was announced she’d be helming an action film entitled The Old Guard (based on a graphic novel series) for Netflix about a squad of mostly unkillable warriors who’ve spent centuries together trying to help humanity avoid self-destruction, I initially didn’t know what to expect. But her attraction to the project makes perfect sense in hindsight.

As with family, life doesn’t let us choose our teammates. Charlize Theron’s Andy, the elder statesman of this historically ancient mercenary group, knows this fact all too well. Over the centuries, she’s been blessed with many victories in battle, but few compatriots to share in the spoils. When the film begins, Andy has only three fellow soldiers under her command - former Napoleonic soldier Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), and the once-warring crusaders Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) who, in the eternity since have fallen madly in love.

Facing a world consumed by global warfare, omnipresent surveillance technology, and mass cruelty, Andy and the gang are beginning to feel like their efforts squashing dictatorships and saving innocent lives hasn’t made a lick of difference. But their sense of purpose and hope for the future is rejuvenated once they recruit a young U.S. Marine named Nile (KiKi Layne), who joins their crew after being killed (and resurrected) during a mission in Afghanistan.

By focusing on the interpersonal relationships of its heroes, The Old Guard showcases Prince-Bythewood’s talent for crafting a sense of unspoken devotion between hard-shelled protagonists who specialize at keeping up their guard. The film meshes these sobering, often reflective scenes with muscular, pinpoint, and methodical action where proximity becomes another key component.

The Old Guard often positions the repressed individual desires of characters against what’s supposedly best for societal institutions and global movements (military, geopolitics, capitalism). But this tension is smoothly ingrained in the narrative, so much that it reminded me of how Love and Basketball (2000) effortlessly exposes the hypocrisies of gender inequality and toxic masculinity through the weepie twists of an on/off the court romance.

Even more interesting is how The Old Guard allows its characters the time to ponder their place in history and question the notion that a longer life is somehow better. In the end, Andy can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to her massive legacy until another pair of fresh eyes connect the dots. That appreciation and respect for historical perspective give The Old Guard some much-needed empathy within the realm of double-tap gun-fu cinema.

Palm Springs (Hulu)

While everything in the world feels terrible and pointless, I found great pleasure in this time-travel comedy from the Lonely Island gan. There’s something breezy and refreshing about watching Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti’s cynical thirtysomethings go through the various stages of fear, elation and grieving after they get stuck in a never-ending time loop while attending a California desert wedding.

Obviously, Groundhog Day (1992) has set the bar for these kinds of infinitely resetting narratives, but Palm Springs doesn’t try to emulate that film’s sinister underbelly. It instead beautifully captures the aimless, selfish individualism of middle-class Millenials stuck in a rut of their own making.

Even if the film drifts from memory after viewing, there’s plenty to admire about its appreciation for soulful expressions of creativity and epiphany within the realm of inescapable repetition.

Greyhound (Apple TV+)

Navy porn, pure and simple. If you’ve ever wanted to watch a war film that completely, blatantly, boringly immerses the viewer in military jargon, tedious communication protocols, positional duties, and the mechanics of war machines, this will be your jam. I found it unimaginably dull, and its treatment of race is, how shall I put this, a bit on the All Lives Matter side of the spectrum.

Old reliable Tom Hanks wrote the script and stars in this lifeless drama about a group of Allied warships escorting cargo vessels across the Atlantic during WWII. Nazi U-boats patrol a particular stretch of ocean named “The Black Pit” positioned outside the range of American or British air support, making the ships particularly vulnerable.

Title cards specify the location and timing of this journey, furthering the film’s desire to create immediacy within each moment, where thinking about the past and future are too costly an exercise. Much is made of leadership decisions communicated under duress, and the overall chain of command. Hank’s commanding officer is haunted by the memories of a romantic relationship permanently on hold but persistently pushes them aside to remain devoted to the nautical maneuvers of hunting the often unseen German submarines that are only visible once they’ve broken the ocean’s surface.

Much of the action is completely computer-generated considering the complexity of the ship’s movements and massive scale. This makes Greyhound feel like a video game, albeit one your grandpa would probably enjoy watching you play.

Until next time,

GHJ
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