First Glance: “Made in Italy”

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Liam Neeson has made a name for himself as a tough-talking, no frills action star. That leads some people to forget that he is also a very good dramatic actor. I like his punch-and-shoot thrillers, but I always enjoy seeing him taking on weightier, more serious roles. He can also be very funny. James D’Arcy’s new dramedy “Made in Italy” looks to be tapping into Neeson’s dramatic and comedic sides.

The film appears to be a father-son story set in the beautiful Tuscan countryside. Neeson inherits an Italian villa from his recently deceased wife. He and his estranged son (because they’re always estranged in these things) travel to Italy to get the house ready to put on the market. But old memories resurface and fixing up the house proves to be just what their strained relationship needed.

“Made in Italy” releases August 7th. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “The Old Guard” (2020)

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How does the idea of a movie featuring Charlize Theron leading a band of age-old immortal mercenaries sound to you? What if it tossed in the likes of Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and “If Beale Street Could Talk” standout Kiki Layne? I posed that question a few weeks ago after the first trailer dropped for “The Old Guard”, a new action-superhero mashup from Netflix that sounds a lot better than it ends up being.

The film is based on a comic book by Greg Rucka who also wrote the screenplay. It’s set in present day and follows a group of immortals, the only ones of the kind, who throughout history have tried to fight for what’s right. They’re led by Theron’s Andy (aka Andromache of Scythia), the oldest of the group but don’t dare ask her how old (“Scythia” is a pretty good indicator). Booker (Schoenaerts) fought with Napoleon. Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) met during the Crusades.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

So basically the four never grow old although they somehow grew to the ages of the cast members who play them. Then apparently they stopped aging. Who knows? I don’t remember the movie explaining it although it could have been crammed in the various info dumps we get throughout the middle of the story. Also they don’t die thanks to their Wolverine-like healing factor. Bullets, bombs, blades – they can live through it all. That is until their supernatural healing just suddenly stops for no real reason whatsoever. Then they can die.

That kind of lack of detail plagues much of “The Old Guard” whether you’re talking about the characters or the story itself. It glazes over backstory with an almost casual disinterest, mentioning things from the past and even tossing in some flashbacks. There’s also an oddly developed love angle that doesn’t feel remotely organic. None of it amounts to much except for setting up a sequel. The ending leaves no doubt about the movie’s franchise aspirations.

The main storyline revolves around an evil pharmaceutical company ran by a weaselly young exec named Steven Merrick (Harry Melling) “The youngest CEO in pharma” he proudly boasts. Predictably his plans are to capture the immortals and replicate their powers for his own nefarious purposes. And he has an entire army of indistinguishable and utterly disposable soldiers to make sure he gets what he wants.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Meanwhile the perpetually sullen Andy has grown frustrated with the lack of impact their group’s work is having. “The world can burn for all I care” she mutters. But before she and the team can throw in the towel, they all have an interconnected dream (don’t ask) letting them know that another immortal has emerged. Enter Kiki Layne, so good in “Beale Street” but a bit out of her element here. She’s fine when it comes to pure physicality. But she has a tougher time selling her character dramatically, often overacting and rarely given a quieter moment to show off her strengths. As for Ejiofor, he’s given little to do other than stand to the side and offer stunned reactions to the things he sees.

“The Old Guard” has some good names attached and the idea of immortal mercenaries, each with a John Wick-like gift of nailing headshots, has promise. But director Gina Prince-Bythewood can’t wrangle it all together and Rucka’s script leaves too many questions while offering characters who need more heft. So you’re left with the action which offers a smattering of ‘wow’ moments with an occasional touch of style. Sadly there aren’t enough of them to rescue the film from its more mediocre genre impression. “The Old Guard” opens this Friday on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Becky” (2020)

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If co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion had the goal of making an unorthodox action-thriller full of crazy B-movie gore and with an undeniable “Die Hard” vibe that sees a 13-year-old girl as their John McClane, well…mission accomplished. “Becky” checks all of those boxes, sometimes repeatedly just for good measure. It may sound wacky (and it kinda is) but it’s really well made and sports one particularly surprising performance.

The film begins with a young girl named Becky Hooper (Lulu Wilson) answering questions from a sheriff and a social worker. Clearly something bad has happened and Becky is at its center. Hop back two weeks earlier where the film craftily intercuts two storylines happening simultaneously. One sets up Becky’s story while the other introduces the film’s main antagonist, a vile neo-Nazi named Dominick (Kevin James).

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Photo Courtesy of Quiver Digital

Obviously the casting choice that sticks out is James. His transformation from funny man to cold-blooded white supremacist is astonishingly good. James is a menacing presence, giving us a character tattooed with swastikas and Nazi SS bolts, and with a chilling disregard for human life. He and four of his acolytes break out of a prison transport and within seconds cement themselves as dangerous and deadly killers.

At the same time Becky is struggling. Her pent-up anger over her mother’s death to cancer has led to her lashing out at school and at her father Jeff. He’s played by a sorely miscast Joel McHale whose seemingly perpetual grin has you waiting for punch line at the end of his every line of dialogue. Daddy and daughter set out for the family lake house to spend the weekend. Once there Jeff informs Becky that he is planning to marry his new girlfriend Kayla (Amanda Brugel). It’s hard to tell whether he is incredibly naive or incredibly stupid, but his news (predictably) goes over with his daughter like a lead balloon.

As you can probably guess, the two stories intersect when Dominick and his crew show up at the lake house. Turns out there is a key buried in a crawlspace under the house marked by a symbol matching one of Dom’s tattoos. The key becomes a cleverly utilized McGuffin that does a lot of essential tablesetting. Jeff doesn’t know anything about it. Becky ends up with it. Dominick will do anything to get it.

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Photo Courtesy of Quiver Digital

Family drama and home invasion thriller is just a part of the genre blend we get. “Becky” is just as much a revenge-fueled splatter film as the 13-year-old protagonist unleashes her sorrow and rage in a number of grisly, blood-soaked ways. Some of the violence is shocking, some of it is uncomfortable, some of it is laced with humor. But it works both metaphorically and as an old-school action gore-fest.

Milott and Murnion do some really interesting things with their camera while at the same time steadily building tension. While James may be the show stealer, Lulu Wilson is vital and makes for a strong, sympathetic rooting interest. She’s intense, troubled, and seemingly on her own (in more ways than one). While a bit outlandish at times, both she and the script (penned by Nick Morris, Lane and Ruckus Skye) handle things smartly and make the story surprisingly believable. And their little John McClane makes Bruce Willis looks like a choir boy. So be prepared.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Relic” (2020)

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Plowing new ground in the horror genre is a bit of a challenge. It’s almost impossible to watch a horror movie and not see things that have been used before. Yet this genre above all others has proven that smart, inspired filmmakers are still finding ways to take something familiar and make it their own. That’s what we get from director/co-writer Natalie Erika James and her new film “Relic”.

This American-Australian chiller has all the markings of your standard haunted house picture – creaky doors, bumps in the walls, eerie noises at night. But what separates “Relic” is the deeply human heart at its core. Everything in the movie from the family drama to its unsettling horror flows from the same raw emotional center and its brought to light through three absolutely stellar performances.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

Emily Mortimer plays Kay, a workaholic who gets a phone call saying her elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been seen for days. Kay and her twenty-something daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive out to her mother’s rural homeplace but find it empty. They file a police report, question neighbors, and form search parties but to no avail. The only real clues are in a number of Post-it notes scattered around the house. They range from common reminders (“Take my pills”) to more troubling warnings (“Don’t follow it”).

Through these early scenes James (and her co-writer Christian White) cleverly let us in on several key details. We learn that Edna has been showing signs of early-stage dementia. While talking with the police Kay reveals that she doesn’t regularly speak to her mother hinting at past family tension. There are also hints that Edna friendship with a neighborhood boy with Down syndrome has mysteriously soured.

And then Edna suddenly reappears – her hair disheveled, her feet caked with dirt and grime, and a fresh bruise on her chest. Even worse, she gives no indication to where she has been. She’s clear-minded and lucid one minute, lost and frustrated the next. Kay and Sam chalk it up to dementia because sadly that’s often our first impulse. But is there more going on than just a frail failing mind? Absolutely.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

James’ movie is soaked in feelings of guilt and regret. Remorse over time wasted on family grudges and past traumas. Helpless attempts to make amends as a loved one deteriorates right before your eyes. Even worse is the sufferer’s loss of identity and crushing sense of isolation. This is most vividly seen in the house itself – a painful allegory for the devastating effects of dementia. DP Charlie Sarroff’s camera creeps from room to room with unsettling effectiveness capturing eerie signs that something is amiss. Black inky mold spreads across its walls (both symbolic and a wink to Japanese horror). And like Edna’s mind, the house grows increasingly cluttered, becomes harder to navigate, and slowly begins to collapse. Meanwhile, composer Brian Reitzell’s low ominous rhythms ensure we’re never fully at ease.

“Relic” isn’t a movie of big scares. Instead it burrows under your skin, patiently building and then sustaining a chilling sense of dread. It’s a savvy and assured debut from Natalie Erika James who covers some immensely personal ground that many will be able relate to. It’s cryptic final scenes could be an obstacle for some, but I appreciate its open-ended finish which (just like everything else in the movie) has a lot more going on under its surface. “Relic” premieres July 10th on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Greyhound” (2020)

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By now it’s pretty obvious that Tom Hanks can do just about anything on screen. Think about it. In his 40-year film career he has been a baseball coach, an astronaut, an Irish gangster, a pilot, a newspaper editor-in-chief, a wooden toy cowboy. Heck he’s even played Walt Disney and Mr. Rogers. His latest movie “Greyhound” puts him on familiar ground – playing a ship’s captain (he did that in “Captain Phillips”) during World War II (“Saving Private Ryan” of course).

“Greyhound” was originally picked up by Sony Pictures for an early June theater release. But like many films, it was delayed following the COVID-19 outbreak. In a bold move Apple acquired worldwide distribution rights from Sony for a whopping $70 million. Now the movie is set to premiere July 10th on their relatively new Apple TV+ streaming service and it instantly adds some real heft to their platform. That’s a lot of money, but it turned out to be a really good grab.

“Greyhound” is the sophomore effort from director Aaron Schneider and his first film since his quirky 2010 Southern drama “Get Low”. This is (obviously) a much different movie. It’s based on C. S. Forester’s 1955 novel “The Good Shepherd” with Hanks starring and also writing the screenplay (his first script since 2011’s “Larry Crowne”). It’s set in February 1942, shortly after the United States entered World War II and takes place in the heart of the Battle of the Atlantic.

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Photo Courtesy Apple Originals

Hanks plays Captain Ernest Krause, a career Navy officer who is finally given his first command aboard the Fletcher-class destroyer Greyhound. After a quick two months of training with his new crew, Krause is sent to the North Atlantic where he is tasked with escorting 37 merchant ships carrying soldiers and vital supplies to the allies in England. But to get there he must lead them across The Black Pit, a treacherous area out of air support range and swarming with German U-boats. For over 50 hours the convoy would be completely on their own.

Schneider’s tightly packaged war thriller wastes no time ratcheting up the tension. Within five minutes we’re in a white-knuckled game of cat-and-mouse as six German submarines (menacingly called a wolfpack) begin circling the convoy like sharks around their prey. It makes for some thrilling naval combat where instinct and strategy is as much the focus as torpedoes and cannon fire. The film does a great job of making every decision feel like a high-stakes decision. And from the blasts of ocean spray to the boom of the 5″ 38 caliber deck guns, when the action comes the intensity and sense of peril is palpable.

In addition to shooting exhilarating combat, cinematographer Shelly Johnson’s tight-quartered camerawork moves fluidly throughout the cramped ship and around the deck, capturing the close-knit synergy of the crew and putting us right in the middle of it. His crafty framing mixed with Mark Czyzewski and Sidney Wolinsky’s crisp editing keeps things moving at a high-energy pace while adding gravity to each Captain’s order and every exchange between sailors. And thankfully we never get lost in the slew of rapid-fire Navy jargon. Hanks (the writer) pens dialogue that’s organic, believable, and most importantly comprehensible for those of us without our sea legs.

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Photo Courtesy of Apple Originals

“Greyhound” is obviously Tom Hanks’ movie, but no other character even rises to the point of being memorable. There are no bad performances and everyone plays their roles well. But you’ll be hard-pressed to remember anyone other than Krause. Yet it works because Hanks (as you would expect) is terrific and a natural fit for his character. His expressions speak volumes and you never doubt an action he takes or an emotion he relays.

As for his script, Hanks borrows the outline for Krause from Forester’s book, but passes on many of the details. For example Hanks hints at but doesn’t explore Krause’s bouts with insecurity and self-doubt. Instead his film version shows a confident captain with a steady hand yet with quieter concerns. Little is made of it being his first command either narratively or dramatically. Hanks also gives Krause a love interest played by Elizabeth Shue, but frankly it amounts to nothing more than a cameo and their relationship is only skimmed over in a brief opening scene.

That’s because “Greyhound” is all about fully immersing its audience in the critical tactics and perilous execution of World War II naval combat. For a taut 90 minutes the film sticks to that focus, carrying its viewers across the enemy-infested North Atlantic and putting us into the heads of the men navigating it. It could have done more with its characters or built more of a backstory. But it’s the willingness to stick to its guns (no pun intended) that makes the movie such a thrilling war-time experience. “Greyhound” premieres July 10th on Apple TV+”

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Ordinary Love” (2020)

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The latest in the growing number of movies dealing with illness is “Ordinary Love”. But simply sticking that label onto this affecting drama would be both reductive and unfair. Co-directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leburn along with writer Owen McCafferty have more on their minds, namely exploring the ordinary life of a loving, devoted couple rocked by a cancer diagnosis and how they cope with it both individually and hand-in-hand.

“Ordinary Love” follows Joan (Lesley Manville) and Tom (Liam Neeson), happily married for many years. The film looks at their lives together through a very still and natural lens. It follows the most ordinary of routines: breakfasts together, feeding their fish, afternoon walks, and evenings watching television. But when Joan discovers a lump in her breast their life journey takes an unexpected turn. Barros D’Sa and Leburn takes us through Joan’s breast cancer diagnosis, surgeries, and chemotherapy. Most importantly they plow the deep emotional ground, but with care and compassion.

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Photo Courtesy of Bleeker Street

The movie’s biggest strength is in how it thoughtfully examines the processes of both Joan and Tom in coping with the cancer. Manville is a force intensely committed to both the physical and emotional demands of her role. Through her we see Joan’s fear and uncertainty, but also resolution and strength. Neeson perfectly portrays the complexity of feeling men struggle with when in Tom’s situation. He’s great showing how men often try to mask their worry through optimism (“It’s nothing“, “Everything will be fine“). He’s even better when that optimism gives way to denial and frustration. Most importantly it’s all handled without an ounce of melodrama or sentimentality.

Unfortunately the movie seems to lose some of its focus in the final act where it spends too many scenes focused on other people. They’re intended to introduce a coping method into the story that helps Joan and Tom navigate her illness. Instead it’s a tacked on narrative thread that feels more scripted than organic.

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Photo Courtesy of Bleeker Street

Also, despite the extraordinary chemistry between the two leads, we still never really get to know Joan and Tom. Do they have any family or friends? Do they have jobs or are they retired? What are their interests or hobbies? We learn they lost a daughter but how and how long ago is never shared. McCafferty’s script is heavily invested in walking us step-by-step through the cancer diagnosis, treatment, and after-effects. Not one single second of it feels false or unrealistic. At the same time the characters are fastened so tightly to the cancer storyline, there is little room for many personal details outside of it.

Yet “Ordinary Love” stays afloat thanks to Manville and Neeson, two seasoned actors with great emotional resonance and a natural chemistry. You can’t help but be touched by the sensitivity and humanity both bring to their roles. If only they were given deeper, fuller characters to explore. I can’t help but think about Michael Haneke’s brilliant “Amour”, a film that showed the harsh reality of illness while still coloring in its two leads with vivid, heartfelt detail.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars