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

REVIEW: “Out of Death” (2021)

It’s funny, we talk a lot about Nicolas Cage and the sheer volume of mostly straight-to-video movies he puts out. In fact, you could say Cage has earned a certain reputation for it. You may not realize it, but Bruce Willis isn’t far behind him. Here in the twilight of his movie career, the 66-year-old Willis has found a home popping out VOD action thrillers by the gross. He’s set to appear in SIX movies in 2021 alone. He already has four set for next year with several others in post-production.

His latest, the oddly titled “Out of Death”, fits the model of many of these Willis movies – meager budget, middling-to-bad material, and a quick paycheck for a couple days work. But the ever-likable Willis still brings a good presence to the screen and the sentimental side of me still enjoys seeing him, even when he’s sleepwalking through a role like he is in “Out of Death”. From his very first scene Willis looks tired and detached, a clear sign for how audiences can expect to feel.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

The film begins with Shannon (Jaime King) arriving in the mountains to spread the ashes of her recently deceased father. While hiking to her dad’s favorite spot she inadvertently walks up on a drug transaction between an astonishingly dumb dope dealer named Jimmy (Oliver Trevena) and a crooked sheriff’s deputy named Billie (Lala Kent). The swap quickly sours ending with Billie gunning down Jimmy as he’s running away. Shannon witnesses it all and even takes a few shots with her camera before being noticed.

Shannon takes off running while the potty-mouthed Billie radios her equally corrupt boss, Sheriff Hank Rivers (Michael Sirow). In addition to running cocaine through the area, Rivers is also running for mayor of some town we never see. The last thing he needs is to get his hands dirty so close to election day. So he sends his chain-smoking older brother Tommy (Tyler Jon Olson) to help Billie clean up the mess.

Elsewhere in the woods, Jack Harris (Willis), a retired cop from Philly, just lost his wife of 32 years to cancer. He’s come to the mountains to stay a week at his niece’s lake house hoping that some quiet time alone will help him cope with his loss. While out for a stroll he stumbles upon a captured Shannon as she’s about to be executed by Billie and Tommy. Thankfully for our protagonists the two deputies are utterly incompetent leading to Jack rescuing Shannon and kicking off a slow and mostly uneventful game of cat-and-mouse.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

First time director Mike Burns works from a script from first time screenwriter Bill Lawrence and both give an admirable effort. But the movie has too much working against it from the start. The budget constraints are pretty obvious although the movie works around it the best it can. Far more noticeable is the acting which, outside of King, is pretty bad. Even the usually reliable Willis struggles. Some of its due to the script which is plagued by some dopey dialogue that the performances can’t overcome. The story also puts its characters in some ludicrous positions and no level of acting talent can make these scenes anything but laughable.

Burns tries to add a few flourishes to his movie such as breaking the story up into chapters for no real reason whatsoever. And there’s a weird ‘25 minutes earlier’ clip near the end that is completely unnecessary. But those are small issues next to the film’s bigger problems. “Out of Death” is ultimately held down by its story that fizzles out before the halfway mark and several bland to bad performances that are too distracting to get past. And it doesn’t help that the film’s marquee name seems totally uninterested. Kinda like us for most of the 93-minute runtime. “Out of Death” is now streaming on VOD.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Old” (2021)

When it comes to an M. Night Shyamalan movie, half of the fun is watching the public reaction from the time it’s announced to the movie’s release. Few filmmakers spark a more vocal and opinionated reaction than Shyamalan. Those who love him stand by him through thick and thin. Those who don’t have a compulsion to share their disdain anytime his name is mentioned. It didn’t take long for those impulses to kick back in following the announcement of his new film “Old”.

That’s not to say Shyamalan hasn’t earned some of the scrutiny. He had a pretty lengthy run of disappointments from 2004 through 2013 that included stinkers like “The Lady in the Water”, “The Last Airbender”, and “After Earth”. It ended up souring a segment of his fanbase and many have clung to their animus despite his (mostly) return to form with movies like “The Visit” and “Split”.

While “Old” isn’t likely to be heralded as one of Shyamalan’s best, it’s a far cry from being among his worst. Like many of his films, it’s built around a cool idea and Shyamalan gets all of the mileage out of it he can. His story is inspired by the Swiss graphic novel “Sandcastle” which was given to him as a Father’s Day gift from his daughters. His three-act adaptation features many of his familiar trademarks including his knack for developing a steady sense of dread and (of course) the inevitable ‘big twist’. One noteworthy difference here is the non-stop intensity which is both a strength and a weakness. There were moments when I wanted the movie slow down so I and the characters could to catch our breath. On the other hand, that same relentless tension is what kept me glued to the screen.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The movie opens with a vacationing family of four arriving at a luxurious tropical island resort. Husband Guy (Gael García Bernal) and his noticeably pre-occupied wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps) chose the place for their last family vacation before sharing some pretty upsetting news with their children, six-year-old Trent (Nolan River) and 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton). As the family debates how they should spend their first full day, the resort manager tells them about a beautiful and quiet private beach on the other side of the island. He even arranges to have a driver (Shyamalan in his signature cameo) take them there and pick them up later.

Guy, Prisca, Maddox, and Trent arrive at the off-the-beaten-path beach along with a few others from the resort. They include a stressed-out doctor (Rufus Sewell), his narcissistic wife (Abbey Lee), his elderly mother (Kathleen Chalfant), and his young daughter (Kyle Bailey). There’s also a friendly but antsy middle-aged couple (Ken Leung and Nikki Amuka-Bird). And lastly there’s a rapper with a persistent nosebleed (Aaron Pierre) who goes by the hilariously bad stage name of Mid-Sized Sedan. They all settle in on this gorgeous stretch of beach that’s surrounded by crashing turquoise waves on one side and tall rocky cliffs on the other. What could possibly go wrong?

In case you forgot, this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie so A LOT can go wrong and it does. Within minutes of their arrival on the beach Shyamalan is already tightening the screws and rolling out his hellish nightmare. It turns out that time is out of whack on the beach. Years go by in a flash and suddenly everyone is aging at a terrifying pace. And of course there’s no cell phone service and anyone who tries to leave the beach finds themselves knocked out cold. To say any more would be a disservice because the best part of a movie like this is unwrapping the mystery and watching how things play out. In that sense Shyamalan hits his target. “Old” will keep you guessing, searching for clues, and trying to figure out how all the pieces fit.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Shyamalan also does a good job of getting the most out of his remote setting. He takes a postcard quality paradise and out of it creates a near suffocating sensation of being trapped. He also uses his camera to play around with our perception of time and space. Along with his DP Mike Gioulakis, Shyamalan leans into a number of meticulously planned visual flourishes including eerie tracking shots, slightly tilted angles, and some off-kilter compositions. Some grab more attention than they need to, but most help nail down the feeling of unease the filmmaker is going for.

“Old” packs an impressive cast and the performances are (mostly) good enough to do the job. Both Bernal and Krieps come out a little stiff but loosen up over time. The bigger problem is the even stiffer dialogue which no amount of talent onscreen can fully cover up. It goes hand-in-hand with Shyamalan’s tendency to have his characters spell out more than they show. And as for character-building, the script lacks a certain intimacy meaning we never really get to know any of the people we meet. They still earn our empathy, but we never get to see below their surfaces.

The movie is helped immensely once the young children are suddenly teens. Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff and Eliza Scanlan instantly strengthen the cast and bring a certain frantic energy that helps drive the story towards its anticipated twist. It leads to a satisfying finish that won’t leave your jaw on the floor, but fits very nicely with the buildup. Will it all be enough to satisfy the naysayers? I doubt it, so expect some jubilant takedowns drenched in hyperbole to start popping up on your Twitter feed. But while this modestly budgeted thriller is hampered by its flaws. it’s ultimately able to overcome them. “Old” sees Shyamalan once again blending the supernatural with the real world to make something that’s uniquely his own. Not everyone will be onboard, but I was. “Old” opens in theaters tomorrow (July 23rd).

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

Review: “Oxygen” (2021)

“Oxygen” is the next film from French director Alexandre Aja. You may remember his last movie “Crawl”, a surprisingly entertaining thriller about a father and daughter trapped inside their flooded home with killer alligators during a Category 5 hurricane. I admit on paper it sounded ridiculous, but it actually showed Aja to be a crafty filmmaker capable of capturing harrowing tight-quartered action and creating authentic edge-of-your-seat tension. I went into “Crawl” snickering and left smiling and genuinely impressed.

His follow-up “Oxygen” is a much different movie, one that will inevitably draw comparisons to the Ryan Reynolds claustrophobic thriller “Buried”. But the films have little in common other than their tightly confined settings. This one stars French actress Mélanie Laurent who I’ve enjoyed watching since her powerful breakthrough role in 2006’s “Don’t Worry, I’m Fine”. Here she’s tasked with carrying practically the entire onscreen workload, a daunting assignment but one that Laurent proves to be up for.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Talking about “Oxygen” is tricky and saying too much would spoil what turns out to be an engrossing experience. As with most movies, the less you know the better but it’s especially true here. What I can safely say is that the movie opens with a woman waking up to find herself bound inside of a sealed cryogenics pod. Terrified and disoriented, she frantically tries to get her bearings within the dimly lit unit, the haunting sounds from her heart- rate monitor beeping in the background. Within the first few minutes Aja has his audience firmly planted in his suffocating setting. He then methodically begins unpacking the mystery.

Not only is the woman bound, but she’s connected to all types of medical gadgetry. But worse of all, she has memory of who she is or how she ended up in the chamber. After freeing her hands she’s able to power up the chamber which suddenly lights up with displays. She’s also introduced to the pod’s AI named MILO (voiced by Mathieu Amalric), short for Medical Interface Liaison Operator. MILO informs her that he’s there to answer “all of her medical needs” but with a few caveats of course. He also shares something you never want to hear, “System failure. Oxygen level: 35%“. This sets up one of the key tensions of the film as the woman must piece back her memory if she’s to have any chance of getting out before the oxygen runs out.

“Oxygen” hinges on three absolutely essential components: a captivating lead, camerawork that’s able to keep things visually interesting, and a script that keeps audiences invested without ever collapsing into tedium. Screenwriter Christie LeBlanc ensures tedium isn’t an issue by mixing race-against-the-clock tension with a smart multi-layered mystery. It results in a propulsive story that was constantly surprising me, both with its unexpected twists and the creative ways LeBlanc keeps the plot moving it forward.

And Laurent is certainly a captivating lead. This isn’t an easy role for anyone to take on, but she comes at it with a fierce sense of commitment. Her ability to sell every second of her character’s terror, stress, and frustration is not only impressive but crucial to the story. It’s not hyperbole to call this a must-see performance; one brimming with anxiety and raw emotion that also ably captures the protagonist’s resilience and resourcefulness.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Meanwhile Aja and his DP Maxime Alexandre certainly do their part as well, enhancing the movie with a countless number of shrewdly calculated visual touches. With crafty camera angles and fluid movements, they make the most of their single location setting, using every inch of the pod’s ‘slightly larger than a casket’ interior to great effect. The few breaks we get from the cramped chamber mostly come through brief memory flashes – a swing in a backyard, a white lab rat, a hospital emergency room. As you would expect, these well-shot and well-utilized snippets slowly unveil pieces of the story, but they’re also welcomed chances for the audience to come out for air.

Fans of sci-fi thrillers are in for a real treat with “Oxygen”. Not only is it a great entry into Netflix’s portfolio, but its an audacious and absorbing slice of genre entertainment. Alexandre Aja pulls inspiration from several places and weaves it together with his own style to make something unexpectedly unique. Aja also knows he has an actress he can rely on and a script that sucks in the audience and ultimately pays off their investment. “Oxygen” premieres May 12th on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS