The Old Guard (2020, Gina Prince-Bythewood)

The Old Guard is better than any of the Highlander movies (to date, I suppose) but sadly not a success. It gets relatively close to passing at least, but then the epilogue is forced, predictable (screenwriter Greg Rucka’s really obvious, he’s really episodic and he’s really obvious–Old Guard is based on Rucka and Leandro Fernandez’s comic of the same name so the episodic makes sense. The obvious also makes sense (I’ve got many the Rucka comic under the reading belt). But the epilogue’s pretty bad. At one point during Old Guard, when I’d given up on this entry actually being good, I got hopeful for the sequel.

Epilogue kinds of ruins it.

But not as much as the soundtrack; Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran are credited with the score, which I think is maybe three minutes of actual music. The rest of the time there’s the best accompanying song soundtrack Netflix was willing to pay for, which apparently was less than it would take to download some public domain recording of classical music.

All of the action sequences in Old Guard have a really annoying, not well-chosen song going with them. Maybe I just don’t like my ears to bleed, maybe the songs really are good, but then editor Terilyn A. Shropshire should’ve cut the action to the songs better. They’re not synced, it’s just accompaniment. So they apparently didn’t have to pay Bertelmann and O'Halloran anymore.

Highlander 1 had Queen and Michael Kamen.

The Old Guard has Bertelmann, O’Halloran, and the full versions of songs you can probably excerpt for free. It’s dreadful. Particularly because otherwise the action scenes would be good. There’s a solid fight scene for Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne; they’ve got to have their pissing contest after all. Old Guard follows the eighties action movie tropes well enough if it’d embraced them more it might’ve endeared.

Though it’s hard to endear with such a bad soundtrack. It’s really profoundly bad. It’s something else.

Anyway. Theron is playing Sean Connery, while Layne is the newest Highlander. She’s not Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod however, because Matthias Schoenaerts basically fits that part. Layne’s new and unexpected, the first new Immortal in two hundred years, which is ostensibly ominous but the comic’s got—sorry, sorry, the movie—the movie’s got profound logic problems. Rucka.

Theron has been alive since “Xena” times at least and has always battled on the side of good, saving this village or that village for thousands and thousands of years. But it’s 2020 and she no longer sees any evidence of the good she’s done for 4,000 years. Theron and her fellow Immortals Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, and Luca Marinelli do nothing but fight. And in the last few decades, they’ve been mercenaries for the CIA, doing rescue operations. You know, all those rescue operations the CIA does with the good people. Thankfully there’s no government conspiracy for Rucka’s script to be naive about, instead there’s an evil big Pharma company out to steal the secret of immortality.

Harry Melling plays the head of the company.

It’s singularly one of the worst villain performances ever. Melling is playing the young Pharma bro evil mastermind only he’s dressed like Pee-Wee Herman (“Playhouse” not South Trail Cinema) and he’s so silly it’s hard to believe anyone could keep a straight face during the scenes. Though most of Melling’s supporting cast is bad. Actually, all of them.

Head of security Joey Ansah is a martial arts guy. He’s never good but at least he can do his fight stuff in the end. Whereas evil scientist Anamaria Marinca is just… bad.

What’s disconcerting is how the casting is otherwise good.

Layne’s fellow Marines—Mette Towley and Natacha Karam—they’re solid. Until that plot line goes bad—Rucka—a movie with them in it more had a lot of potential.

So the leads.

Theron’s as close to bad—due to abject disinterest in anything other than her hand-to-hand scenes, not even the gun fight scenes, which are fine other than that terrible soundtrack–that disinterest is even more concerning given Theron produced the film (which means she’s hit that stage of Eighties Eastwood stage of career)—without every actually being bad. She shows some personality a handful of times, but there’s really no call for it because there’s not really any significant character development because….

Rucka.

Layne’s got some really good moments and she’s always appealing but Old Guard isn’t supposed to be a pilot movie or even a TV movie to test out how Layne does on Netflix, it’s supposed to be a good part. And it’s not a good part. No one’s got a good part.

Well, Schoenaerts. Except his performance is the same Schoenaerts head-shaking and looking off into the distance thing he always does, just immortal this time. He’s likable though. Be fun to see in the sequel. Maybe.

Kenzari’s great. Marinelli’s fine. Chiwetel Ejiofor hopefully bought something nice.

Prince-Bythewood’s direction is fine. The action scenes would’ve been good without the terrible soundtrack. The Old Guard’s not her fault (I mean, I don’t know about the soundtrack but I sincerely hope it wasn’t her idea); the direction’s fine otherwise. The action scenes are anomalies. When scenes otherwise go wrong, it’s because of the script.

Though there are a handful of nice moments in Rucka’s script; until the third act, it really seems like Old Guard’s going to make it through. And then it doesn’t.

Because Rucka’s cheap and obvious, Melling is atrocious, and the soundtrack is painfully exasperating.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood; screenplay by Greg Rucka, based on the comic book by Rucka and Leandro Fernandez; directors of photography, Barry Ackroyd and Tami Reiker; edited by Terilyn A. Shropshire; music by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran; production designer, Paul Kirby; costume designer, Mary E. Vogt; produced by A.J. Dix, David Ellison, Marc Evans, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger, Beth Kono, and Charlize Theron; streamed by Netflix.

Starring Charlize Theron (Andy), KiKi Layne (Nile), Matthias Schoenaerts (Booker), Marwan Kenzari (Joe), Luca Marinelli (Nicky), Harry Melling (Merrick), Natacha Karam (Dizzy), Mette Towley (Jordan), Anamaria Marinca (Dr. Meta Kozak), Joey Ansah (Keane), and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Copley).


Backcountry (2014, Adam MacDonald)

Backcountry is all about this young couple who need a weekend in the woods to realize why they’re wrong for each other. She’s a lawyer who’s interested in playing on her smartphone with her friends. The movie’s from 2014; maybe it’s supposed to be Candy Crush? Is 2014 too early for Instagram?

Missy Peregrym plays the female lead.

Her Romeo is Jeff Roop, who acts like he once had an acting coach who really believed in him but it turns out was dead wrong about Roop’s abilities. Like, Peregrym’s flat. There’s a moment, late in the film, when she’s supposed to be on the brink of collapse, run through more than she ever thought she could survive, and she’s sort of scowl-peering like she’s trying to see what director MacDonald’s telling her to do. It’s even worse because we know by that time in the film… MacDonald (hopefully) isn’t giving his actors any direction.

The script he gets them to perform is bad enough.

Roop is a failed landscaper or something. He’s maybe going to get a friend of his to sell him a share in his successful landscaping firm or something. But he lives off Peregrym, obviously.

They’re going up to a provincial park–Backcountry isn’t ashamed of its Canadianity (I mean, it’s got “Da Vinci” Nicolas Campbell cameoing and it tries to pretend very American Eric Balfour is Irish)—but they still don’t draw too much attention to it. They never mention Toronto, which I vaguely recall was always the eighties giveaway.

Now, MacDonald’s got a problem with perspective. Almost throughout. But he maybe gets some first act forgiveness because most of it is him doing these rote montage sequences. The beginning is a bunch of shots of the car driving out of civilization into the wild—the Backcountry. Neither Roop or Peregrym’s likable during their car trip (it’s scary to think they’re supposed to be) and once they get to the park, we find out Roop’s got something special planned for their trip.

He’s very obviously going to propose.

Very obviously.

To the point it’s almost a surprise Peregrym isn’t supposed to know about it and just have ignored it while playing Candy Crush, which is what MacDonald thinks lawyers do. I mean. Sure, but she’s supposed to be a movie lawyer. She doesn’t seem lawyerly enough for “Night Court.”

Because she’s bad. It’s bad. Backcountry’s bad.

I mean, are the gore effects good?

Sure. MacDonald doesn’t know how to direct them—or anything else—Christian Bielz doesn’t know how to light them (though he’s better than expected during daylight scenes, nighttime no), and editor Dev Singh doesn’t know how to cut them. The editing is the least competent part of Backcountry but you can tell it’s MacDonald’s idea. Singh clearly had terrible footage to work with.

Vince Nudo’s score, which is kind of an eighties synth thing but restrained (Tangerine Dream meets Vangelis), isn’t exactly good or even interesting but it’s peculiar in a not bad way.

And peculiar in a not bad way is something special for Backcountry, which is otherwise entirely unremarkable in its badness.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Adam MacDonald; director of photography, Christian Bielz; edited by Dev Singh; music by Vince Nudo; production designer, Pierre Bonhomme; costume designer, Ginger Martini; produced by Thomas Michael; released by IFC Films.

Starring Jeff Roop (Alex), Missy Peregrym (Jenn), Nicholas Campbell (Ranger), and Eric Balfour (Brad).


The Cabin in the Woods (2011, Drew Goddard)

I didn’t have much hope for Cabin in the Woods; though, I mean, director and co-writer Drew Goddard… he’s gone on to stuff. Good stuff. Right?

But if I’d known it was written in three days—it shows—and cost $30 million—it actually looks pretty darn good for $30 million, saving the money shots until the final third or so. And I guess it’s well-paced? Like, it’s terribly long and exasperating as the film threats the various unlikable cast members but then once it gets into the “final girl” sequence, it’s a lot better. I foolishly even had the wrong final girl picked; I thought Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon were going to do something interesting with genre. Or maybe I just assumed they were going to try to do something interesting. Maybe feign something interesting.

I didn’t expect them to mix together a few standard sci-fi tropes, the Evil Dead, a not-Ace Ventura Jim Carrey vehicle, a pseudo-gory Texas Chainsaw knock-off, Whedon and Goddard’s celebrity “Lost” fanfic, maybe two other things I recognized and forgot, plus all the horror in-jokes and references I didn’t get. I got the Hellraiser one, of course, because that one was peculiarly… not desperate but maybe wishful. Like for a moment it became a different movie. Though I was confused the whole time because I thought it was supposed to be the merman not the Hellraiser guy. Cabin is often very talky and very fast and it’s not clear during the first half they’re ever going to painfully detail the big secret with a special genre guest star (if you’re willing to stretch genre). It’s a solid guest star “get,” but it would’ve been better with just a voice over and maybe just been Jamie Lee Curtis.

Even getting past the bad writing—because it’s not just a string of tropes fit into very specific, very literal boxes, it’s still terribly written—the acting is all atrocious as well. Cabin creates a role just for Bradley Whitford—paired with Richard Jenkins like they’re Lemmon and Matthau or something—and it’s bad. Like, the part’s bad and Whitford’s obnoxious. Jenkins is better, but definitely not good. He too is obnoxious, with a more explicit misogyny thing thrown in for good measure.

But the leads—Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Chris Hemsworth, Jesse Williams, Fran Kranz—they’re bad. Hutchison, Hemsworth, and Kranz are really, really, really bad.

It’s bad writing on the characters and all, but the acting’s still bad. If Connolly and Williams were really good, there might be some relief but they’re not. They’re just not as bad as the rest of them. They don’t get actively worse. When it seems like Connolly might be getting better but then doesn’t, it’s not a negative. It maintains. Hemsworth, Kranz, and Hutchison get worse throughout.

Good photography from Peter Deming, okay editing from Lisa Lassek (Lassek’s cuts are fine, the content’s just bad), strangely unmemorable score by David Julyan. I remember a lot of emphasis music but not any of the specifics about it, which is probably for the best.

Goddard’s direction is confused for the first half, when he’s homaging left and right, but it’s at least a low competent for the second half, as the film movies into a new realm.

The second realm is… technically more interesting than the first and the film definitely doesn’t get as bad as it sometimes threatens. But there’s only so good it’s ever going to get given the leads. And the writing.

Maybe it would’ve been better as a TV show? They could’ve called it “Lost in the Woods” or something.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Drew Goddard; written by Joss Whedon and Goddard; director of photography, Peter Deming; edited by Lisa Lassek; music by David Julyan; production designer, Martin Whist; costume designer, Shawna Trpcic; produced by Whedon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Kristen Connolly (Dana), Chris Hemsworth (Curt), Anna Hutchison (Jules), Fran Kranz (Marty), Jesse Williams (Holden), Richard Jenkins (Sitterson), Bradley Whitford (Hadley), Brian White (Truman), Amy Acker (Lin), and Tim DeZarn (Mordecai).


Cool Hand Luke (1967, Stuart Rosenberg)

Maybe a third of the way into Cool Hand Luke, the film all of a sudden starts getting really good. It’s when Jo Van Fleet makes her appearance, which provides the film both its single best acting—Newman and Van Fleet are exquisite in the scene—and also director Rosenberg showing he’s actually got a handle on the film’s style. Luke’s got an excess of style—about half of the more ambitious shots work (though they always look great thanks to cinematographer Conrad Hall)—and it’s not clear to Van Fleet’s exit whether or not Rosenberg actually knows what he’s doing.

Unfortunately, even though it’s initially a big positive Rosenberg’s got ambitions, the lumpy second half (and especially the third act) show such a lack of ambition—outside the forced Jesus symbolism, which Rosenberg feigns big but feigns empty. Rosenberg goes on to press with the Jesus stuff without exactly having prepared for it, which also ends up being a problem for editor Sam O'Steen. O’Steen and Hall enable most of the great early filmmaking stuff, but once Rosenberg gives up on anything but religiously themed production design and what not… well, Hall can still make it look good, but O’Steen’s slicing at… soft-boiled eggs. It’s hit and miss.

It also doesn’t help Lalo Schifrin’s first half score seems entirely disconnected from his second half score. Luke’s from a very strange place in time, when you weren’t going to have leading man Paul Newman getting accused of glorying criminals but you also were going to acknowledge criminals were people too (as long as they’re White and it’s the late 1940s and there’s no such thing as prison rape or or beatings or even bullying). Rosenberg’s initial approach is to acknowledge the unspoken through the, let’s just say, mise-en-scène. But instead of actual engaging with that unspoken in the second half, when the film very directly says it wants to question the idea of humanity and empathy and brotherhood and whatever… it just cops out and becomes a disjointed Jesus parable with some amusing chase sequences throughout.

The stuff in the beginning, with Schrifin’s score turning the road gang vehicles driving Newman and his fellow prisoners to and from the prison camp into a nightmare scene… it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t figure in. It’s just Rosenberg flexing. And he’s got some good flexes throughout; how could he not with this cast and crew. Newman, Hall, O’Steen, Schifrin, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, and the entire supporting cast. Rosenberg’s able to mix a lot of acting styles, like gravel-voiced straight shooter J.D. Cannon and mumblecore Harry Dean Stanton. The direction of the cast is impressive. It’s just the scenes aren’t great. Not after a while.

When Rosenberg’s got to figure out how to show Newman alienated and abandoned by masculinity and what not… Luke just shrugs. It does whatever it can to avoid Newman. It’s like a character study until it decides it doesn’t want to get too close to that character.

And instead there’s a bunch of Christian imagery. Only not assembled in any meaningful way, it’s just another gimmick for Rosenberg to utilize. He doesn’t seem to be malicious about it. He’s not covering for any perceived lack in the picture… which is kind of the problem. Rosenberg’s got some moves, a great crew, a fantastic cast, and a script in need. He gets about as far as you can without being able to fix the problem and then throws in some crosses to get to the finish line.

It’s a bummer.

Some great acting from Newman though. Just great. Like, Kennedy’s good and whatnot, but Newman’s big swings hit.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg; screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson, based on the novel by Pearce; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Lalo Schifrin; costume designer, Howard Shoup; produced by Gordon Carroll; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Paul Newman (Lucas Jackson), George Kennedy (Dragline), Jo Van Fleet (Arletta Jackson), Strother Martin (The Captain), Morgan Woodward (Walking Boss), Luke Askew (Boss Paul), Robert Donner (Boss Shorty), Clifton James (Carr, the floor walker), John McLiam (Boss Keen), Andre Trottier (Boss Popler), Charles Tyner (Boss Higgins), J.D. Cannon (Society Red), Lou Antonio (Koko), Robert Drivas (Loudmouth Steve), Marc Cavell (Rabbitt), Richard Davalos (Blind Dick), Warren Finnerty (Tattoo), Dennis Hopper (Babalugats), Wayne Rogers (Gambler), Dean Stanton (Tramp), Ralph Waite (Alibi), Buck Kartalian (Dynamite), Joe Don Baker (Fixer), James Gammon (Sleepy), Anthony Zerbe (Dog Boy), and Joy Harmon (Lucille).


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