REVIEW: “On the Rocks” (2020)

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I’m always up for a new Sofia Coppola movie. I’m especially happy to get one in 2020, a year where the vast majority of my most anticipated releases have been pushed back to infinity and beyond. Coppola’s latest “On the Rocks” is a light, easygoing dramedy that still features most of the filmmaker’s hallmarks including her way with dialogue and affection for her characters. It’s also really funny in its own smart and mellow way.

“On the Rocks” is the first film in a multi-year partnership between independent film distributor A24 and Apple. After premiering at the New York Film Festival it received a limited theater release leading up to its streaming debut on Apple TV+ later this month. It stars the sometimes under-appreciated Rashida Jones while reuniting Coppola with the 70-year-old forever young at heart Bill Murray.

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Photo Courtesy of A24 and Apple

Jones plays Laura, a great mom to her two beautiful young daughters and happily married to Dean (a pleasantly subdued Marlon Wayans). He’s the head of his own New York-based company which seems to be taking off. By all accounts Laura is living the life. She’s a talented author working out of their swanky Soho apartment. Her two girls are darling, well-adjusted bundles of joy. Dean is a motivated, good-looking go-getter.

But we begin to see cracks in their sunny domesticity once Laura starts to suspect her husband of having an affair. His chummy relationship with his co-worker Fiona (Jessica Henwick), the long nights at the office, business trips to London, a mysterious toiletry bag in his luggage. Dean remains impervious to his wife’s concerns and is quick with perfectly reasonable (or perhaps convenient) excuses. Still Laura resists the temptations to believe her husband is a cheater, something that becomes increasingly harder to do the more they stay apart.

Enter Bill Murray. He plays Laura’s father Felix, a character so perfectly tuned for the veteran actor/comedian. Felix is a breezy and shamelessly wealthy charmer; a bonafide playboy with gender sensibilities better left in the 1970’s. He’s also a bottomless well of useless information. Some like “The Russians fed the cosmonauts beluga” are silly and utterly pointless. Others are equally absurd yet thrown out seemingly as archaic attempts at justifying his own sins. “Monogamy and marriage are based on the concept of property.”

Once Felix gets a whiff of Laura’s suspicions he immediately begins fueling her paranoia. His flawed primal reasoning leads him to believe Dean is cheating. After all, it’s “natural“. “Dad, not everyone’s like you” she jabs. But Felix casts just enough doubt to get Laura to agree to a little daddy/daughter detective work. This sets up some of the film’s funniest moments with Murray flashing his signature deadpan sincerity and Jones playing the perfect foil.

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Photo Courtesy of A24 and Apple

But don’t think Coppola turns this into some goofy seen-it-before caper built around cheap laughs and lazy characterizations. Instead she turns the table on us, changing the focus of her story while still keeping it intimate and personal. Yes, it’s quite funny with dry wit and dashes of screwball comedy sprinkled throughout. But it’s the authenticity and warmth of the central relationship the drives Coppola’s smart and laid-back script.

“On the Rocks” isn’t deep or challenging. It’s not particularly nuanced or highly original. Instead Sofia Coppola handles her story and its themes with a effectively light touch. What she gives us is a tasty slice of real life experienced through characters who grab our attention and compel us to listen, laugh and feel. Wayans is an unexpected surprise and who wouldn’t want to venture into the enchanting pre-COVID New York City night in a red convertible with Bill Murray? But the film’s heart and soul is Rashida Jones, an immensely talented actress who proves to be the perfect anchor for Coppola’s latest. “On the Rocks” premieres October 23rd on Apple TV+.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The One and Only Ivan” (2020)

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Talking animal movies aren’t usually my cup of tea. Maybe it’s because I’m in my late 40’s which puts me about 40 years older than the target audience. Yet I can still appreciate movies like “The One and Only Ivan”, a sweet and gentle family film with plenty of heart. It’s a movie with a very old-school Disney vibe which is good for the reasons mentioned above. But it also means we get a pretty formulaic story that doesn’t hold back on the occasional cheese.

Bryan Cranston plays Mack, the ringmaster of a big top animal show located inside of a dried-up shopping mall. The show is headlined by a silverback gorilla named Ivan (soulfully voiced by Sam Rockwell) who Mack adopted as a baby after he was saved from poachers. Other animal acts include a wise pachyderm Stella (Angelina Jolie), a neurotic seal (Mike White), a prissy poodle (Helen Mirren), a rooster with stellar hand-claw coordination (Chaka Khan), and a rabbit who drives a toy firetruck (Ron Funches). And there’s also Ivan’s best friend, a stray dog (Danny DeVito) who sneaks into his pal’s cage at night.

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Photo Courtesy of Disney

This is one of those movies where the animals speak to each other in fluent English which the humans never hear. That’s actually not a gripe. Like others before her, director Thea Sharrock does a good job selling it and we viewers have seen enough of these type films to understand the rules. The animals are given a wide range of personalities. Most are fun while a couple border on caricature. And only a handful get meaningful screen time. The others are easy to forget about, only occasionally popping up when the movie needs a group scene.

With the mall steadily losing business to the bigger and more modern Galleria, Mack’s audience size dwindles. Realizing he’s a few sparse crowds away from shutting down, Mack brings in a precocious baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince). She becomes the show’s new headliner creating a tinge of jealousy in Ivan. But a young human girl named Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of Mack’s handyman, helps Ivan to see himself in Ruby. He determines to help Ruby have the freedom he lost when he was her age.

One of the film’s strengths is found in the human element. Cranston’s Max is hardly a villain. He’s a lonely fellow who genuinely loves his animals despite being impervious to the effects of their captivity. It adds a much more interesting dynamic than if Mack were a hateful, physically abusive brute. That character type has been done many times before.

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Photo Courtesy of Disney

Other strengths include the excellent GGI and even better voice work that bring the animal characters to life. There is such a soothing, easy-going quality to Rockwell’s voice while Jolie speaks with a sage-like elegance. DeVito’s playful banter is a nice fit while young Prince conveys an irresistible sweetness. They all work together with visual effects supervisor Nick Davis and his team of animators who seamlessly handle the integration of computer-generated characters into a live-action space. We’ve seen it done before, but rarely better than here.

Unfortunately the film isn’t without its flaws. Writer Mike White’s adaptation of K. A. Applegate’s children’s novel starts strong and does a nice job developing its main characters. But the story shows signs of stress especially as it threatens to turn into an animal version of “The Great Escape”. White (thankfully) dials it back and points towards a potentially better finish. Instead we end up with a rushed and on-the-nose final act that’s partially saved by a bittersweet ending which (either intentionally or not) is both happy and heartbreaking. I like interpreting it that way. It makes “The One and Only Ivan” a little more than a run-of-the-mill family drama.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Outpost” (2020)

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In 2006 during Operation Enduring Freedom the United States put together a counterinsurgency plan which included setting up a series of outposts in northern Afghanistan. The aim was to connect with the locals and win their support in stopping Taliban fighters from crossing over from Pakistan. Combat Outpast Keating was precariously nestled in a remote mountain valley and near the town of Kamdesh. It’s vulnerable location left it under constant threat of a Taliban assault.

Director Rod Lurie’s “The Outpost” tells the true story of the inevitable Battle of Kamdesh. More importantly it highlights the incredible heroism and valor shown by the soldiers who fought against insurmountable odds. The movie is a tale of two halves. The first, a wobbly attempt at introducing characters that leans too heavily on oozing machismo and relentless frat-boy jabber. And the second, a visceral and intense portrayal of combat anchored by a deeply human perspective that puts fear and bravery hand-in-hand.

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Photo Courtesy of Screen Media Films

The film is based on the 2012 book “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor” by Jake Tapper. The screenplay by Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy begins by introducing us to the troops of the ill-fated outpost. They’re led Cpt. Benjamin Keating played by Orlando Bloom sporting a Southern-ish accent (that mostly works) and a surprising gravitas and stoicism. Keating is a soldier admired by his men and committed to his duty. “We’re going to win by getting their hearts and minds” he says of locals.

Scott Eastwood plays Sgt. Clint Romesha with toughness and grit while Caleb Landry Jones gives an eye-opening performance as Spc. Ty Michael Carter. Both were Medal of Honor winners for their heroics on October 3, 2009. That’s when the Taliban surrounded the outpost with over 300 men and began their attack. Previously it had only been the occasional stray gunfire. This was a full scale assault against the vulnerable outpost and the 54 soldiers defending it.

But getting to that point in the movie is a bit maddening as endless locker-room prattle takes the place of meaningful character development. Think “Porky’s” goes to the military. It’s unfortunate because there are some good scenes showing negotiations with local villagers and conversations questioning the wisdom of their overall mission. But the first half can push your tolerance level especially if you’re hungry for deeper, fleshed out characters.

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Photo Courtesy of Screen Media Films

But it’s the second half which saves the movie as it thrusts these soldiers into the heart of combat and anchors their desperate experiences in authentic human emotion. A key reason it works so well is that Lurie doesn’t shy away from showing unbridled fear. These aren’t 54 Rambos standing in the open blasting machine gun fire while barely breaking a sweat. The last hour presents these men as real people, as scared and on edge as anyone else would be, but with an uncommon valor and willingness to sacrifice themselves for the men next to them.

While the first half of “The Outpost” is a borderline disservice, the second half is a fitting tribute to the soldiers who fought the Battle of Kamdesh. It takes too long to hit its mark, but once it does the film immerses you in the sheer ferocity of combat. And while the action is intense and kinetic, it never feels like your watching an action movie mainly because Lurie never loses sight of the human element. If only the first half had the same convictions. “The Outpost” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

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

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