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

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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

REVIEW: “Outback” (2020)

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Those darned smart phone GPS apps. Always re-calculating, re-routing, leading you out to perilous barren wastelands and leaving you for dead. Take what happens in the new survival thriller “Outback”. Now I know that the Australian Outback isn’t a wasteland per se. It’s a vast and diverse group of ecosystems. At the same time, there are places in the Outback where you wouldn’t want to be stranded especially with no water, no food, and no sign of civilization.

Director and co-writer Mike Green’s “Outback” is set in the summer of 2015 and follows American high school sweethearts Wade (Taylor Wiese) and Lisa (Lauren Lofberg) as they travel to Australia for a two-week getaway. Their plans are to rent a car and travel up the coast visiting all the popular beaches along the way. Little did they know (at least according to the title cards) they would soon become “Outback legend”.

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Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate

The two land in Sydney and things are a bit tense on arrival. We learn Wade has proposed to Lisa on the flight over and it doesn’t take a body language expect to see he didn’t get the answer he hoped for. That cloud hangs over much of the rest of the film as Wade sulkingly wrestles with rejection while Lisa struggles to express why she’s not quite ready to get married.

After a pretty nasty jellyfish encounter at their first beach stop the two scrap their original plans and decide to venture into the Australian Outback. Foreshadowing of what’s to come is everywhere. “You didn’t get a GPS?”, “Do you think it’s safe to be out here with no (phone) service?”, “Do we have enough gas?” They all point to the inevitable. Wade follows his not-Google maps app as it re-routes him off the highway and down long dirt roads that get smaller and more isolated the farther they drive. Soon they’re lost with no food, no water, and no sense of direction.

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Photo Courtesy of Lionsgate

Things only get worse from there as Green puts his two characters face-to-face with the Outback’s many dangers – deadly snakes, scorpions, ants, hot days, and cold nights. He slowly ratchets down on the survival element squeezing everything he can out of his two stars. To their credit both Lofberg and Wiese are all-in. They’re a little spotty during the film’s early dramatics, but as the tension amps up the two really sell the growing anxiety and fear. And they’re at their best once the story takes some gruesome turns and their characters slowly begin to unravel.

Is this story true? Is it myth? I have no idea. You would like to think that no real people would make the number of dumb decisions it took to land Wade and Lisa in such a predicament. Driving deep into the Outback with only half a bottle of water. Refusing to turn around and go back to the highway when it’s crystal clear your app is as lost as you are. Yet despite those things, “Outback” shows itself to be effective where it counts – in immersing us in the terrifying vastness and the isolation of Australia’s bush and in keeping us glued to a young couple’s grim quest for survival.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “1BR” (2020)

1BRposterSarah is a twenty-something aspiring fashion designer whose world is shaken after the death of her mother to cancer. To make matters worse, her estranged father had an affair while his wife was on her deathbed. This drives Sarah to leave home and move across the country to Los Angeles in hopes starting a new life. But I’ve been told finding a good place to stay LA can be tough.

Unlucky for Sarah (played by impressive newcomer Nicole Brydon Bloom) she finds Asilo Del Mar, “Affordable Luxury Apartment Living“. This gated apartment building seems too good to be true: a great location, spacious units, smiling uber-friendly tenants who love community cookouts in the courtyard. Sarah attends an open house for a recent vacancy but little does she know it’s actually an audition. More on that later. To her surprise she gets a call a few days later from apartment manager Jerry (Taylor Nichols) letting her know she can move in.

If the queasy perfection wasn’t enough to rouse your suspicions, things get weirder at night when Sarah is kept awake by loud creaking noises in the walls. And when she breaks the cardinal rule of “No Pets Allowed”, lets just say things get a little heated. The more I leave for you to uncover on your own the better, but suffice it to say things aren’t as they appear. And while it’s glaringly obvious the community has a secret, it’s eventually confirmed with a twisted (and gruesome) jolt. It’s followed by a slow-drip reveal that I found utterly gripping.

“1BR” is written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker David Marmor. His debut is a tense, uneasy thriller with a ‘ripped from the headlines’ appeal. Much of his story is inspired by communal cults, specifically Synanon, a Santa Monica cult founded in 1958 and disbanded in 1991. Marmor was drawn to the idea of pure intentions (Synanon was initially a drug rehab program) taking dark and violent turns over time. He also pulls from his own memories of being a twenty-something first moving to L.A.

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Photo Courtesy of Epicenter

The personal touches and real-world pulse certainly benefit “1BR” and its story. But it’s helped most by smart and efficient filmmaking. Marmor makes one good choice after another. He makes great use of his location. He never overplays his hand or exploits a situation. He uses gore sparingly but very effectively. And he wisely leans on his lead actress Bloom who is the narrative and emotional linchpin that holds the film together. The story puts Sarah through the wringer and Bloom handles it with a seasoned poise – never too big but always with the right amount of feeling.

“1BR” is an assured and well-made thriller, brimming with suspense and packing a sharp psychological edge. It’s also a movie featuring two eye-opening debuts, one from its lead actress Nicole Brydon Bloom and another from writer-director David Marmor, both certain to have exciting things ahead of them. The movie’s predictability in some areas may take away some of the intrigue, but watching it all play out is a blast and Marmor’s shrewd approach to storytelling ensures there is never a dull moment.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Other Lamb” (2020)

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Is it just me or does there seem to be a resurgence of cult-related movies? Last year alone we got Ari Aster’s sophomore effort “Midsommar”, the so-so Netflix thriller “The Silence”, and even “Doctor Sleep”, the much-anticipated sequel to “The Shining”. Obviously some of these deal more directly with cults than others, but the timing of this rekindled interest is kinda fascinating.

The latest cult movie entry is “The Other Lamb” and it’s pretty easy to find its modern day inspiration. Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska and screenwriter Catherine S. McMullen have made what is essentially a feminist parable set against patriarchal repression. It’s an moody mix of “Midsommar” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” built around arresting visuals and a persistent, slow-boiling sense of unease.

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As the movie begins the unnamed sect is well established and its rituals fully ingrained within its membership. We get little in terms of background, either personal or religious. We see they live in the forest, isolated from modern society – twenty or so women with the same braided hair style wearing ankle-length dresses that only differ in color, red for the “wives” and blue for the “daughters”. They’re led by a suave, charismatic charlatan who they call the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman). His “flock” soaks up his every word with starry-eyed awe while constantly seeking to win his favor.

Like a snake oil salesman with fresh new tonic, the Shepherd peddles his vision of a “new Eden” to his adoring followers. But one lamb in his flock begins to question her blind obedience. At first Selah (played by Raffey Cassidy) is a dedicated disciple looking forward to the day when the Shepherd will extend to her his self-satisfying “grace”. But when he’s forced to lead the flock on a long, arduous journey to find a new home, Selah begins noticing the cracks in his infallibility.

“The Other Lamb” quickly evolves into a young woman’s coming-of-age awakening. Selah’s disenchantment intensifies as she grows closer to Sarah (Denise Gough), a “wife” ostracized within the community. Sarah’s wise to the Shepherd’s shenanigans which has put her on the outs with the group. “His attention is like the sun” she explains. “Bright and glorious at first, but then it just burns.” When Selah inquires about the lack of males among them, Sarah chillingly states “Only one ram in the flock child.”

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There really isn’t much else to it. The lack of depth in the characters is mirrored in the story. But what the movie lacks in narrative it makes up for in tone and in its ability to build a steady sense of dread. Szumowska’s mood is immediately unsettling and for the rest of the way we’re never given a reason to believe things will turn out well. From the outset we know something’s not right. Whether it’s the Shepherd’s pharisaical fervor that always leads to his own gratification. Or the “broken” women clearly exploited and brainwashed into subservience.

“The Other Lamb” certainly isn’t subtle with its message. You can’t mistake it for anything other than a metaphor for abusive relationships and their punishing effects. But while it might be obvious, that doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. There is a potency especially in the visual language used by Szumowska and her DP Michał Englert. All that’s lacking is the character depth to help us know these people better. It’s the one missing ingredient that could have enriched the movie as well as our experience with it. Still, there is more than enough creative grit to make it worth your time and Raffey Cassidy is a young actress to keep your eye on.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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Denzel Day #6 : “Out of Time” (2003)

TIMEposterOver a span of two months each Wednesday will be Denzel Day at Keith & the Movies. This silly little bit of ceremony offers me a chance to celebrate the movies of a truly great modern day actor – Denzel Washington.

Alfred Hitchcock was fascinated with the idea of innocent men trying to clear their names of an assortment of offenses they didn’t commit. It’s a theme he revisited numerous times often adding his own twist to the scenario. Innocence, guilt, mistaken identity – all elements Hitchcock loved to explore. You can’t help but see that influence in director Carl Franklin’s “Out of Time”.

Franklin and screenwriter David Collard tell a story thick with Hitchcockian flavor and more twists than a classic 1940’s noir. In their film Denzel Washington plays the man with the deck stacked against him but with a small caveat. He’s not what you would call a squeaky clean victim with a spotless moral record.

Washington plays Matt Whitlock, police chief of the sleepy little town of Banyan Key which is nestled about an hour’s drive from Miami. This easy going Florida Keys community of around 1,300 people is rocked when a suspicious house fire takes the life of a local husband and wife Chris and Anne Harrison. The fire chief rules it to be arson and a homicide investigation begins.

Now enter the twists. Matt has been having an affair with Anne (Sanaa Lathan), an old flame from high school, and the abusive Chris (Dean Cain) is suspicious. Things get more complicated when a cancer diagnosis, a life insurance policy, and $485,000 in seized drug money all come into play. Oh, and toss in Matt’s estranged wife Alex (Eva Mendes), recently promoted to detective and brought in to assist with the case.

Matt finds himself doing everything he can to hide his connections to the case while also carrying out a secret investigation of his own. Collard’s script has a field day putting the character through the ringer as he constantly heads off new evidence to keep the police off his trail only to avoid being caught by the skin of his teeth. The sheer lack of plausibility would make it easy to dismiss if not for Franklin’s swift pacing which never allows us too much time to dwell on any of it.

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Of course it helps to have Denzel Washington as your lead. Despite the ramped up tension (especially in the second half) Washington gives what you could call a laid-back performance. Aside from a few beads of sweat and a couple of concerned looks, Washington and his character maneuvers through the many twists and turns confidently and relaxed yet (as always) with plenty of charisma. It’s only at the very end that we see Matt lose the control he has held (though at times precariously) through the entire film.

Washington and Franklin previously worked together in the exceptional 1995 neo-noir “Devil in a Blue Dress”, a film I hold in high regard. “Out of Time” doesn’t quite reach that level but it’s a much different movie despite sharing some of the same elements. It works best as a sugar-rush thriller, light and undeniably absurd. But to be honest that’s a big part of what makes it so much fun.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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