REVIEW: “Orphan: First Kill” (2022)

“Orphan: First Kill” is a prequel to the 2009 psychological horror cult hit “Orphan”. It’s a rather unexpected second feature that sees Isabelle Fuhrman reprising her role as Esther, the creepy and calculating adoptee who terrorized her foster family in the first film. Despite being 13 years older and this new movie taking place prior to the original, Fuhrman falls right back into Esther’s skin, bringing the character and all her devilish cunning back in a startlingly convincing way.

William Brent Bell directs this new installment with David Coggeshall handling the screenplay. It’s based on a story by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Alex Mace, the brainchildren behind the first movie’s script. Fans of the original film might remember one particularly disturbing aspect of Esther’s background. More specifically, what happened to her family before she was put in the orphanage. “First Kill” gives us a first-hand dive into those events.

Image Courtesy of Paramount+

“Orphan: First Kill” may not convince us of the need for its existence, but it does provide fans of the 2009 movie plenty to munch on. At the same time, it’s undeniably silly and it doesn’t exactly start off on the strongest foot. But credit to the filmmakers who broadside us with a midway twist that I can’t imagine anyone seeing coming. It’s utterly bonkers and sadistic, but in a weirdly satisfying way it energizes the rest of the movie and makes this much more than just a carbon-copy of its predecessor.

Bell opens his movie with a prologue set in 2007. At an Estonian mental hospital called the Saarne Institute, Leena Klammer, the facility’s most violent patient, escapes. She assumes the identity of Esther Albright, the believed-to-be abducted daughter of a well-to-do American couple, Tricia (Julia Stiles) and Allen (Rossif Sutherland) Allbright. In Darien, Connecticut, Esther/Leena is ‘reunited’ with the Allbrights and their teenage son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan).

From there, the movie borrows the model of the first film as Esther’s deranged game of manipulation really kicks in. It seems like she may have hit the jackpot. The Albrights are a big-money family who fly in private jets, live in a sprawling country estate, and even have a collection of Fabergé eggs lined across their living room mantel just to highlight their wealth. And to top it all off, the ruggedly handsome Allen immediately catches Esther’s eye, if you know what I mean (à la Peter Sarsgaard from the 2009 flick).

That sounds like a pretty copy-and-paste approach, and you’d think it would be a hard sell this time around since we already know Esther’s BIG secret from the previous movie (I won’t spoil it for those yet to see it). Also, there’s an undeniable silliness to the idea of a daughter being gone for just four years yet returning this dramatically different. Yes there’s a physical resemblance, but the weird personality, the ice-cold eyes, the 18th century dress code, the poorly concealed Russian accent. Are there really no question marks or red flags popping up for this family?

Image Courtesy of Paramount+

Enter that midway twist I mentioned. The movie answers all those concerns (to varying degrees of success) with a wild out-of-the-blue turn that jolts the entire story and sends it in a vastly different direction. It’s pure gonzo camp that doubles down on the nuttiness of its premise and gives the cast some warped yet wildly entertaining places to go. It’s especially true for Stiles and Fuhrman. Stiles has always been an underrated actress. It’s great seeing her get a role she can really sink her teeth into. Fuhrman is an unsettling force, but at age 25, it’s a little tougher to look like a convincing 9-year-old. But the movie pulls it off thanks to a clever mix of body-doubling, strategic camera angles, and an occasional splash of CGI.

Interestingly, the movie’s ending feels a little hurried and cheap. Yet at the same time, it kinda fits considering how zany this thing gets. And I can’t imagine them being able to take the series any further. Overall it’s hard to call “Orphan: First Kill” necessary, and in terms of series status all it really does is fill in a few holes. But who cares about all of that when we’re given something this much fun? Bell and Coggeshall have a field day bending the genre, and the small but game cast are all onboard. By the end, I knew I had been thoroughly entertained, yet I still sat wondering what on earth I had just watched. “Orphan: First Kill” is streaming now on Paramount+.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Orphan” (2009)

For some reason the 2009 psychological horror film “Orphan” slipped completely by me. Not only did I not see it during its original release, I don’t remember even hearing about it. In fact, it wasn’t until the announcement of its recently released prequel and its subsequent good word of mouth that I was actually aware of its existence. That’s crazy for me considering that “Orphan” wasn’t some obscure, minuscule budgeted, straight-to-video release. Even more baffling, it stars two acting talents I really enjoy – Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard.

To prep for its prequel, I finally sat down with “Orphan”. It’s directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (“Jungle Cruise”, “Black Adam”), written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (“Aquaman”, “The Conjuring 2”), and co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio (???). As mentioned, the film stars Farmiga and Sarsgaard playing a struggling couple who adopt a young girl to help cope with the loss of their own child. Needless to say, things don’t quite turn out as they had hoped.

Image Courtesy of Paramount

Kate and John Coleman’s marriage is at a critical point following the stillborn loss of their third child, Jessica. Kate (Farmiga), a recovering alcoholic, is finding it harder to resist her urges to drink. And the couple can’t seem to rekindle the intimacy they once had before losing their baby. After much consideration, Kate and John (Sarsgaard) visit St. Mariana’s Home for Girls and adopt 9-year-old Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman).

Esther is exceptionally bright, well-mannered, and artistic. But she’s not without her eccentricities. For example, she dresses as if she’s been yanked from another time period. And what’s with that old Bible she keeps hidden in her sock drawer? She immediately hits it off with the Coleman’s 5-year-old hearing impaired daughter, Max (Aryana Engineer). But their jealous 12-year-old son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) immediately dislikes the new family addition, and the tension between the two only intensifies.

“Orphan” is one of those movies where the audience knows the angle from the start. We know something is off with Esther and that nothing good is going to come for this family. So it’s all about watching it play out and waiting for the truth about Esther to be revealed. In some films like this, that can be maddening. But kudos to Collet-Serra and Johnson-McGoldrick for creating characters we can connect with and care about. From there the task is to create atmosphere and build tension, something Collet-Serra does very well.

Image Courtesy of Paramount

The film is really helped by strong performances from Farmiga, Sarsgaard, and Fuhrman. Farmiga gets the meatiest and most complex role while Sarsgaard is a sturdy scene-sharer. Both find layers of humanity in their characters especially as their family dynamic starts to crumble. In the meantime, Fuhrman is a steadily unnerving presence, and she only gets creepier as Esther’s malevolence grows. It’s a wickedly effective performance.

So it took me a while, but I finally got around to seeing “The Orphan”. I’m glad I did. It’s a fun, preposterous, and at times chilling horror thriller that’s more interested in the psychological than cheap scares or gore galore. Other than a prequel, it’s hard to see what more they could do with it as this works really well as a stand-alone movie. There’s some quality character work, some really good tension-building, and a pretty gnarly final act that should please the genre faithful. “Orphan” is now streaming on Paramount+.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Obi-Wan Kenobi” (2022)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Since it was first announced that Ewan McGregor would be reprising his role of Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, I immediately began measuring the possibilities. For clarity, I’m a bonafide Star Wars fan. I grew up on the original trilogy, actually enjoyed the sequel trilogy, and liked the prequel trilogy before it became cool to do so. So having McGregor back in one of the franchise’s most pivotal roles was exciting. News of Hayden Christensen’s return only made this six-part limited series more intriguing, especially for die-hands and canon junkies who consume every morsel of Star Wars content available.

Directed by Deborah Chow, the series fits in the mostly unexplored space on the Star Wars timeline between “Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” (McGregor’s last appearance) and 1977’s “Episode IV: A New Hope” (which featured Alec Guinness as Old Man Ben). It’s set ten years after “Episode III” with McGregor’s Obi-Wan hiding out on the desert planet of Tatooine. There he goes about his mundane daily ritual, blending in with the locals while keeping a watchful eye from afar on 10-year-old Luke Skywalker, the son of his old friend and Padawan Anakin (aka Darth Vader). Luke lives on a moisture farm where he is being raised by Owen Lars and his wife Beru (a returning Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Piesse).

When not cutting meat for his brutish boss, Obi-Wan hangs out in his remote cave where he tries to reconnect with the force ghost of his old master Qui-Gon Jinn. Otherwise, in order to remain undetected by Vader, Obi-Wan has distanced himself from the Force and anything that remains of the Jedi Order. But that doesn’t stop the dogged Vader (played by Christensen, voiced by the great James Earl Jones), who oversees an ominous band of Force-sensitives called Inquisitors to eliminate any remaining Jedi. And once he gets a whiff of Kenobi, the true hunt begins.

Image Courtesy of LucasFilm

These hunters are led by the Grand Inquisitor (a slyly menacing Rupert Friend) who answers directly to Vader. But the film is most interested in an ambitious young Inquisitor named Reva (Moses Ingram). She has a ruthless edge and seems intent on impressing Vader. Is it to ultimately become the Grand Inquisitor herself or are there other motivations at work?

Reva quickly grows into a key character and at times the series seems more dedicated to her than the show’s namesake. Unfortunately her story arc never reaches the fullness of its potential. It starts strong and the hint of mystery surrounding Reva really drives the early episodes. But her arc, specifically in the final two episodes, feels rushed and in need of more attention. It’s as if chunks of her story are missing which makes it hard to really latch onto her as a character. Meanwhile Ingram’s performance begins shaky, but the actress seems to grow more comfortable as she progresses.

Obi-Wan comes out of hiding after he’s contacted by Senator Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) whose adopted daughter (and the twin sister of Luke), a young Princess Leia (Vivian Lyra Blair), has been kidnapped. Obi-Wan reluctantly agrees to find her and bring her home. But doing so draws the attention of Reva and Darth Vader himself who has a score to settle with his former Jedi master. This Obi-Wan/Anakin link turns out to be more than just a nostalgic nod. It forms the emotional core of the series and leads to some truly epic moments that are custom-made for the Star Wars faithful.

You could call Obi-Wan Kenobi” a series of big moments. There are callbacks, reveals, appearances, and showdowns that fans will be talking about for years to come. There are moments that many have been imagining for decades and answers to questions that some have mulled over since “Revenge of the Sith”. Some of the best moments involve Anakin/Vader – his psychological conflict, his revenge-seared conscience, and the path of violence he leaves in his wake. It’s hardly thorough, but it does leave you thirsting for more.

Image Courtesy of LucasFilm

At the same time, there are some noticeably far-fetched bits. Some are small; others are a little more obvious (such as a haggard Obi-Wan sneaking Leia by countless Imperials in the highly secure Fortress Inquisitorious by simply stuffing her under an oversized trench coat). And despite its many highly enjoyable peaks, there are instances where character logic is nearly impossible to reconcile (and I really tried to). Small quibbles overall but sometimes they’re too noticeable to overlook.

Performance wise, McGregor is terrific as is the adorable Blair who really embodies young Leia. And I love the Christensen/Jones dual effort in portraying Vader. The new characters are more of a mixed bag. I’ve mentioned Reva who teases better things than she delivers. The same could be said for the Inquisitors, some of whom simply vanish in the second half. Kumail Nanjiani is essentially comic relief who never feels in-tune with the tone of the show. And O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays an underground resistance leader who works at a single super-serious temperature. One exception is Indira Varma. She’s really good playing a double-agent who Obi-Wan and Leia encounter on their journey.

While not perfect, “Obi-Wan Kenobi” is the kind of series many Star Wars fans were hoping for. It fully embraces the old while tossing in some new, and it leaves the door open for more. So far there has been no announcement of a second season, but several characters and story threads are sure to be explored in future Star Wars projects. Could it be in a “Kenobi” season two? Perhaps. After all, money and enthusiasm talks, especially with Disney. “Obi-Wan Kenobi” is now streaming on Disney+.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Operation Mincemeat” (2022)

The effects of the World War II reverberated across the globe and impacted people from all walks of life. As a result, there are countless movies sharing stories of heroism and horror, savagery and sacrifice, patriotism and oppression. True accounts stretching from the battlefront to the streets of occupied cities; from war rooms to concentration camps, are still waiting to be told.

In many ways, movies have been instrumental in informing generations on lesser known yet equally significant World War II stories. Some are bold and thrilling; others are somber and moving. And occasionally you get those that are so utterly implausible that you wouldn’t believe them if they weren’t true. Such is the case for the new Netflix Original “Operation Mincemeat”.

In 1943, with a quarter of a million dead in battle and no end of the war in sight, the Allies began preparations for a crucial invasion of Sicily. But Sicily was an obvious target, and Hitler was moving in troops to repel any possible advance. So in order to pull off a surprise attack, the Allies would need an elaborate deception – something to shift the Fuhrer’s attention away from the heavily reinforced Sicily.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Directed by John Madden and written by Michelle Ashford, “Operation Mincemeat” chronicles one of the most remarkable (and improbable) military deceptions of World War II. A small group from British intelligence concocted and orchestrated an intricate ruse aimed at fooling Hitler into thinking Greece was the next Allied target. Ashford’s script tells the story through a crafty blend of fact and fiction. It plays best as a wartime drama and spy thriller. But there’s also a romantic angle thrown in that never quite simmers the way it should.

Colin Firth plays Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, a seasoned serviceman with the British Navy intelligence who teams with RAF Officer Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) to plan, coordinate and execute their extraordinary (and on the surface absurd) ruse. It went something like this: take a real corpse, dress it up like a real British officer, attach to it a briefcase of fake secret documents pointing to Greece as the Allies next target, and then dump the body into the Gulf of Cadiz off the coast of neutral Spain. What could go wrong?

To get their plan in motion, Montagu and Cholmondeley put together a small but crack team to help. Among them is Montagu’s devoted and straight-shooting secretary Hester (the always terrific Penelope Wilton) and a young war widow named Jean (Kelly Macdonald) who agrees to fill a pivotal role in exchange for a seat at the table. Eventually Jean is the center of the rather lukewarm romantic tension as both Montagu and Cholmondeley are soon smitten with her. It’s an angle made up of some pretty good scenes that unfortunately never really go anywhere.

For their plan to work the team needs a corpse. They find it in the unclaimed body of a homeless man who died from ingesting rat poisoning. From there it’s about hammering out the details of their outlandish deception. The best scenes may be their planning sessions at the Gargoyle Club in Soho. There the team piece together an entire biography for their fake officer. They tag him with the generic name Major William Martin to make him hard to single out once German intelligence start snooping. They even create a love story between their Major and a young woman named Pam – a faux romance with an overly syrupy connection to the growing feelings between Montagu and Jean.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Playing the proverbial thorn in the side is Jason Isaacs as John Godfrey, a British Admiral who reports directly to the growling cantankerous Churchill (Simon Russell Beale). Godfrey doesn’t believe in Mincemeat but he is convinced Montagu and/or his brother is a Russian spy. He petitions to keep Mincemeat running in hopes of yielding intelligence on Montagu and his alleged connection to Moscow. Isaacs is no stranger to playing these types of characters and Godfrey is right on his wheelhouse.

Along the way, Madden and Ashford attempt to add depth to Montagu and Cholmondeley through a couple of personal side-stories – Montagu’s strained relationship with his wife Iris (Hattie Morahan) and Cholmondeley’s efforts to retrieve the body of his KIA younger brother. And while dramatic beats such as jealousy, deception and blackmail continue to play out, the second half mostly focuses on Mincemeat’s execution. It’s here that the tension really ratchets up.

Perhaps the filmmakers could have wrestled a bit more with the moral implications of the operation. And maybe the love triangle could have used some special sauce. But as a whole, “Operation Mincemeat” is a gripping stranger-the-fiction war drama brought to life by a craftier than expected script and an impressive ensemble. And when it comes to World War II history, I doubt you’ve heard many stories quite like this one. “Operation: Mincemeat” premieres tomorrow (May 11th) on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Outfit” (2022)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

“The Outfit” brandishes a double-edged title with the most obvious reference being to a suit of clothes. But it’s also a reference to a mob network from the Al Capone era, connecting gangs from around the country. It’s a coveted yet mysterious fraternity that many crime families aspire to be a part of. First time director Graham Moore uses the title’s dual meanings in a number of entertaining ways as his gangster chamber piece moves from slight simmer to a violent boil.

Who better to play a mild-mannered and self-effacing English tailor than the gentle and affable Mark Rylance? His character, Leonard Burling, learned his craft on central London’s famed Savile Row. But after a devastating personal tragedy he came to Gangland Chicago with nothing but his beloved sheers. Now he quietly runs his shop, making suits for gentlemen and unsavory types alike. “If we only allowed angels to be customers soon we’d have no customers at all,” he rationalizes to his receptionist Mable (Zoey Deutch), a dreamer with hopes of leaving Chicago behind and traveling the world.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

But outside a neighborhood gang war is steadily intensifying. Throughout the day a number of serious looking men in well-tailored suits and fedoras walk into Leonard’s shop. Without uttering a word they head to the back room, drop small packages into a lockbox mounted on the wall, and are quickly on their way. At the end of the day, Richie Boyle (Dylan O’Brien), the hot-headed son of a local mob boss Roy Boyle (Simon Russell Beale), enters the shop with his right-hand heavy Francis (Johnny Flynn) to collect the packages. Meanwhile the unassuming Leonard goes about his business, never asking questions and keeping his nose clean.

But late one night, the turf war spills into Leonard’s world after a gut-shot Richie and a gun-waving Francis burst into his shop following a run-in with the rival LaFontaine gang. It would be a disservice to reveal much more, but lets just say the rest of the story uncoils over the course of one long night as Leonard tries to outwit all the various underworld players who factor into the film’s mazelike story. Along the way we learn there’s a rat in the Boyle family’s ranks. There’s also a tape containing damning information that could take the Boyles down if it falls into the wrong hands. And what of the Outfit? How do they fit into all of this?

There are several touches Moore brings that can make his film quite attractive. For example, there’s an exquisite early montage showing Leonard crafting a suit from scratch. It’s well edited, well shot, and accompanied by a well-oiled voice-over from Rylance. There’s also the way two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat’s score pulls us into the period during some scenes while effectively ramping up the tension in others.

Yet even with top-notch production design from veteran Gemma Jackson and great interior work from DP Dick Pope, “The Outfit” is far more theatrical than cinematic. In fact, throw in a printed program and an intermission and you would swear you were watching a stage play. That’s not a bad thing especially when the knotty story really kicks into gear. But there are moments when the staginess sticks out and certain limitations become more apparent. Still, a good script can overcome such constraints, and that’s mostly the case here.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

But much of the movie’s success rides on the back of the poker-faced Rylance. His character is a man of few words, but the actor and the screenplay (written by Moore and Johnathan McClain) deftly keeps us fixated on everything he says. We learn there’s more to Leonard than meets the eye, but Rylance never tips his hand. I also have to give props to Nikki Amuka-Bird who has a small but riveting role as Violet, the boss of the LaFontaine gang. She has charisma to spare, and I could watch an entire movie dedicated just to her.

“The Outfit” may be a movie with noticeable limitations, but it mostly overcomes them and in many ways utilizes them to the benefit of its story. Wily first-time director Graham Moore weaves a nostalgic and gnarly web with enough twists and turns to keep his audience engaged. And it helps to have a seasoned and steady actor like Rylance who always seems perfectly in tune with the characters he plays. Here he’s a good anchor and is handed a role custom fit for his strengths. “The Outfit” hits theaters today (March 16th).

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Old Henry” (2021)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Written and directed by Potsy Ponciroli and premiering last month at Venice, “Old Henry” is a lean and old-fashioned Western made by someone with a clear affection for the many classics of a bygone era. Ponciroli doesn’t offer much new to the well-worn genre and he happily embraces some its most necessary tropes. But there is a unique and appealing minimalism in his storytelling, and there’s a lot to love about how simplicity is woven into the very story itself.

“Old Henry” is a perfect vehicle for its star Tim Blake Nelson who falls right into the skin of the film’s titular lead character. Set in 1906, the story takes place in the waning days of the Old West. Henry (with his weathered skin and out-of-control handlebar mustache) is a man from a dying era, content to live out his days raising his petulant teenage son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis) on his small farm tucked away in the Oklahoma Territory.

Image Courtesy of Shout! Studios

Following the death of his wife ten years earlier, the overprotective Henry has worked hard to teach Wyatt about life. While his son is anxious to experience the bustle of the rapidly changing world, Henry argues in favor of the quiet simpler life – working the crops, feeding the stock, etc. “You’ll find there’s worse arrangements,” he says with a seasoned confidence. Henry knows the world. He has history with it. And that history is what pushed him to settle on such a remote patch of rocky land.

But that simple life is interrupted one cloudy afternoon when a horse with a bloody saddle wanders into their field. Henry sets out to find the rider, following a trail that leads him to a dried-up creek bed. There he finds a man with a gunshot wound (Scott Haze) laying next to a satchel filled with cash. Knowing that bags full of money often come with violent attachments, Henry’s first thought is to ride away. But his conscience gets the best of him. He takes the stranger back to his farmhouse, stashing the bag of money in a secret compartment in the wall of his closet.

And then along comes those attachments. Three black hats ride up to Henry’s farm looking for the wounded mystery man. The smooth-talking leader introduces himself as Sheriff Sam Ketchum (played well and with plenty of swagger by Stephen Dorff) and the other two (Richard Speight Jr. and Max Arcienega) as his deputies. Meanwhile back inside the house, the slow-healing stranger says his name is Curry and insists that he’s actually the sheriff and Ketchum and his men are bandits. And just like that the movie’s central tension is defined.

Secrets often play big parts in movies like these and “Old Henry” certainly has its share. Once Ponciroli gets all of his key pieces in place, it becomes clear that everyone has something to hide. From there it’s all about unpacking the many questions. The most urgent – Who is Ketchum? Who is Curry? Both claim to be the law and both have conflicting stories that don’t quite add up. But the biggest secret simmers in plain sight – just who is Henry and what’s this old baggage from his past that he’s worked so hard to bury?

Image Courtesy of Shout! Studios

Ponciroli moseys through the lightly breaded reveals with an Old West elegance, building towards the inevitable explosion of violence. Storywise it’s all pretty easy to figure out save for the one big twist that the movie teases early (for those paying close attention) and then unloads with a fun and satisfying fury. Meanwhile, DP John Matysiak’s evocative camera works well within the film’s mostly single setting, capturing both the ruggedly handsome countryside and rustic lived-in interiors.

“Old Henry” hits on a number of themes, but it’s Nelson’s performance that is the movie’s bread and butter. Precise and economical, the veteran character actor conveys so much with so little. Not a line of dialogue is wasted and every word he speaks seems shaped by the experiences of a life hard lived. And to Nelson’s credit, he often says just as much through his somber and weary eyes.

VERDICT – 4 STARS