Category Archives: 2020

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).


Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (2020, Tony Tilse)

At no point does Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears introduce viewer unfamiliar with star Essie Davis’s television show, to which this film’s a sequel, “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.” The movie opens with an action sequence setting up Davis as an exquisitely dressed combination of Indiana Jones and James Bond. The action—a title card tells us—starts in 1929 Palestine, where the British are mucking things up for the native people… Crypt of Tears is anti-British Imperialism… but from an Australian bent.

Davis rescues Izabella Yena, who’s in British jail for snooping around the destruction of her village ten years before. During the rescue sequence, Davis evades police in a rooftop chance and has a bunch of costume changes. It’s overindulgent and flamboyant but enthusiastic. It’s fun to watch Davis get to do an exaggerated character schtick thanks to the bigger movie budget.

Until they get to the CGI train sequence and it’s clear while Crypt of Tears might have a “movie budget,” it doesn’t have anywhere near a big enough one. The film tries and tries with the desert visuals, which does showcase Margot Wilson’s costuming, albeit not so much in the digital extreme long shots, but they’re always just there. Production designer Robbie Perkins does well, so at least Tears always looks good.

Until the end, which is more cinematographer Roger Lanser and director Tilse’s fault.

Anyway. After Yena’s rescue, the movie goes through some plot hoops to bring series love interest and Davis sidekick Nathan Page to England. There’s a single scene in Australia with the TV show’s cast, but since the movie’s not really a direct sequel to the series… they’re all just doing forced cameos. The movie’s not going to involve the TV cast (save Page, and him in very supporting role), though it’s fun seeing Miriam Margolyes if you’re a TV fan.

Once Davis and Page are reunited, there’s a laborious setup with the… residents of the house where Davis is staying in England. It’s as exciting as it sounds, as Tears becomes a traditional location-bound mystery, kind of a protracted, but somewhat suspect limited Agatha Christie.

Somehow the movie, with its TV show-experienced director and screenwriter (Deb Cox), manages to avoid all the show’s familiar tropes and go instead with bland mystery movie ones. Page being background would be understandable if they were spotlighting Davis as an action hero, but they don’t. We get a bunch with the suspects, who are extremely flat.

Maybe because they’re shooting Australia for England? Rupert Penry-Jones is the single Brit in the cast. Or is it just the suspects aren’t movie dynamic enough? Yena seems like she’s going to have a very obvious woman’s empowerment arc with Davis as her mentor but then she’s just… around. The movie doesn’t do anything with her. There aren’t any subplots for the suspects, if any questions do get raised outside the main plot, they don’t get answered.

The mystery is… blah.

To someone unfamiliar with the show, Tears is just going to be a confusing and often very charming—it’s not like Davis isn’t great or Page isn’t adorable—not great period mystery with TV movie CGI special effects (think CW, not HBO), but as a “big screen” effort from the show creators… it’s a disappointment. It’s like they targeted a very specific audience and gave them something intended for the general audience they decided to exclude.

Also most frustrating is how the fumble is probably going to kill any sequel possibilities. More Davis and Page isn’t going to ever be a bad thing, you just wish it had been a good thing in Tears.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tony Tilse; screenplay by Deb Cox, based on characters created by Kerry Greenwood; director of photography, Roger Lanser; edited by Stephen Evans; music by Greg Walker; production designer, Robbie Perkins; costume designer, Margot Wilson; produced by Fiona Eagger and Lucy Maclaren; released by Roadshow Films.

Starring Essie Davis (Phryne Fisher), Nathan Page (Detective Inspector Jack Robinson), Rupert Penry-Jones (First Lieutenant Jonathon Lofthouse), Izabella Yena (Shirin Abbas), Ian Bliss (Professor Linnaeus), Daniel Lapaine (Lord Lofthouse), Jacqueline McKenzie (Lady Eleanor Lofthouse), Kal Naga (Sheikh Kahlil Abbas), John Waters (Vincent Montague), John Stanton (Crippins), and Miriam Margolyes (Prudence Stanley).


Emma (2020, Autumn de Wilde)

If IMDb is correct, there have been only ten other adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma, and I’m including the modernizations. So it’s not so much Emma is oft-adapted, maybe just it’s got a very memorable story. Memorable enough even I was anticipating how—oh, wow, it’s director de Wilde’s first feature. Like, remember when music video directors were a punchline when they went to features?

Anyway, even with my limited Emma knowledge, I was able to anticipate—gleefully—how de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton were going to adapt the twists and turns. Because once Emma arrives, so to speak, which probably happens with the appearance of Tanya Reynolds as odious vicar Josh O'Connor’s new good lady wife, there’s no longer a question of whether or not the film will be a success. Instead, it’s a question of how successful it will be. And de Wilde, leads Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn, Catton, they seem to peak Emma. Like, it’s hard to imagine how you could do the film better given Taylor-Joy is basically a villain for much of the film’s run time. Not exactly and it’s all very complicated, but watching Taylor-Joy manipulate the worlds around her for her own amusement and questionable pursuit of perfection… she’s not a hero.

It’s what makes her eventual friendship of social cruelty with Callum Turner so effective. He’s encouraging her worst compulsions and doing so for his own benefit. The film sets Taylor-Joy and Turner up as alter egos of sorts, with him using his powers of handsomeness, cleverness, and wealth for selfish purposes, Taylor-Joy uses hers for altruistic ones. But she gets to determine the altruism. The film doesn’t emphasize these parallels and inversions, it just presents them plainly, unspoken. The young, rich, and unmarried in nineteenth century England are have their lane and they aren’t going to deviate. I suppose there’s also a parallel with Flynn, older than Taylor-Joy and Turner, who was once young, is still rich and still unmarried.

Did I just describe the obvious themes of the novel, because when I was watching the film, I finally “got it.” Taylor-Joy’s arc is fantastic in this film. De Wilde and Catton have this very rich backdrop for her to act in. It’s not just getting to see her in the gorgeous production—production designer Kave Quinn, costume designer Alexandra Byrne, and set decorator Stella Fox do exquisite work. There’s a scene where notoriously private Flynn gives a tour of his house to his friends, showing off his various art treasures and the camera can never be slow enough on the pieces, with de Wilde and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt so gorgeously showcasing. As the characters are all reacting to this art around them, being able to see the art so beautifully rendered makes for an entirely different scene than if it were just the drama of the characters.

But the film is a comedy of manners. The narrative twists and turns are only consequential because of the strict cultural norms the cast finds themselves in. It’s very layered, with the characters being very constrained in what they can do and stay. Again, de Wilde and Catton do an excellent job of establishing the rules without any big exposition dumps. Instead, we pick it up from Taylor-Joy’s friendship with latest matching making victim but also apparently first real friend, Mia Goth, or from Taylor-Joy’s dad (a truly wonderful Bill Nighy) in his whining about their social obligations, or from the supporting cast as they fret to one another; Flynn has, of course, the most to say about the cultural norms but also the most restraint. If Flynn’s going to say something about how people are behaving, it’s going to have to be egregious. He’s got all the wisdom and knows it, whereas Taylor-Joy thinks she can bend wisdom to fit her knowledge.

Taylor-Joy and Flynn are the most important performances. They make the film. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job with this material than Taylor-Joy and Flynn. Taylor-Joy becomes sympathetic through Flynn’s approving eye, but her character development is all her own. Outside that approval, in fact. The ending does something really lovely—and lightning fast—reorienting how to read that character development throughout too. de Wilde and Catton always keep some distance from Taylor-Joy, even when we’re seeing her in distress, and are then able to move in for the ending and really leverage the work Taylor-Joy’s done along with some narrative echoing to earlier in the film.

Who’s better, Taylor-Joy or Flynn? It’s a toss-up. Taylor-Joy’s always excellent but she gets more material. Until all of a sudden Flynn gets more material and it seems like he’s even better. But with the third act, the scenes functionally depend on Taylor-Joy and her performance so… Taylor-Joy. Flynn’s still great (and contributes the end credits song, which is adorable).

The supporting cast is all outstanding. Turner’s an excellent rich heel, Goth’s great as the friend; Goth gets a great third act showcase. Nighy’s great as the dad, who’s a hypochondriac. Lots of laughs for Nighy with that detail. Including Chloe Pirrie as Taylor-Joy’s married with children older sister, who’s caught the “bug.” Suffering husband, Oliver Chris (also Flynn’s brother), is hilarious with all his reactions. Then there’s Gemma Whelan as Taylor-Joy’s former governess, first matchmaking victim, and only friend. She’s good. Not in it a lot, but when she’s in it, she’s really good. The baked-in character relationships, the established ones, they’re all really well-done. Rupert Graves is good as her new husband. Miranda Hart’s great in a really important and complicated part. Amber Anderson, as the analogue Taylor-Joy rejects, is good. O’Connor and Reynolds are wonderful.

De Wilde’s direction—composition, performances—is superior. All the technicals are great—wonderful music from David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge—Blauvelt’s aforementioned photography and Nick Emerson’s editing are superlative.

Emma is an absolute delight.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Autumn de Wilde; screenplay by Eleanor Catton, based on the novel by Jane Austen; director of photography, Christopher Blauvelt; edited by Nick Emerson; music by David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge; production designer, Kave Quinn; costume designer, Alexandra Byrne; produced by Tim Bevan, Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin, and Eric Fellner; released by Focus Features.

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma Woodhouse), Johnny Flynn (Mr. Knightley), Mia Goth (Harriet Smith), Callum Turner (Frank Churchhill), Gemma Whelan (Mrs. Weston), Rupert Graves (Mr. Weston), Miranda Hart (Miss Bates), Amber Anderson (Jane Fairfax), Myra McFadyen (Mrs. Bates), Josh O’Connor (Mr. Elton), Tanya Reynolds (Mrs. Elton), Connor Swindells (Robert Martin), Chloe Pirrie (Isabella Knightley), Oliver Chris (John Knightley), and Bill Nighy (Mr. Woodhouse).


Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020, Cathy Yan)

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a Margot Robbie vehicle, which is excellent, because Robbie’s great and the filmmaking, particularly on Robbie’s scenes, is outstanding. Retitling it the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn would be the best move; the Birds of Prey are going to be a bonus, with all your favorite side characters teaming up with the potential for a sequel. Or at least a great “team” epilogue scene. But it’s all about Robbie. Robbie and, to a lesser extent, Ewan McGregor, who gets to play a fantastic villain here.

The film opens with an animated recap of Robbie’s Harley Quinn, which—in addition to being kind of cute and establishing the film’s cartoonish nature immediately—means the film doesn’t have to use any actual footage from Robbie’s previous outing, Suicide Squad, much less the cursed image of Jared Leto’s Joker. And it sets up Robbie’s narration; the narration continues after the opening, walking the audience through the plot, albeit with less exposition than in the opening titles sequence. Robbie’s contemporaneous narration usually establishes one of the supporting players’ backstories in relation to the crime story and gives Fantabulous a noir feel. Director Yan shoots it like one too, with the supporting cast all assuming the showy character actor parts of old without being character actors. Instead, Yan and Prey just waits for the character to resonate enough through presence, then expands them. The film’s got a phenomenal sense of timing, both for the character arcs and the action. The film’s a crime story about a tween pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) who picks the wrong pocket and gets into a bunch of trouble. She gets some badass defenders who try to get her out of that trouble while also inspiring her to do something better with her life.

Though not exactly. Because Birds of Prey is very much about the bullshit women have to tolerate just to survive. Robbie’s been a cannibal madman’s concubine, if you want to go with comic book Joker, or… shudder… Jared Leto’s, if you want to go with movie Joker. Cop Rosie Perez has watched the men she works with take credit for her work for her entire career. Club singer turned crime boss driver Jurnee Smollett-Bell is on survival mode, though Smollett-Bell’s got the thinnest backstory; the film’s not fair to most of its supporting cast; Birds gives them enough to shine but only just. Like Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Mafia orphan turned “cross bow killer,” who assassinates the mobsters who killed her family so long ago. Winstead turns out being great, but it takes a while. She’s kind of comic relief cameoing leading up to it. It’s unfair because Smollett-Bell’s introduction, a performance of It’s a Man’s World, is one of the film’s best sequences.

Fantabulous has a lot of sequences on that list, however. The entire first act and most of the second are these expertly executed and edited adventures for Robbie, with frequent check-ins on villain McGregor and cop Perez. No one gets to do anything on their own except Robbie, McGregor, and Perez in Birds. Smollett-Bell never runs her own scene and, despite being a lone avenger, Winstead doesn’t get to either. Ditto Basco. It’s Robbie’s movie, with some great stuff for McGregor and Perez—once it’s clear McGregor and Perez are actually going to be able to give excellent performances, Birds of Prey’s gradually solidifying ground immediately turns concrete. McGregor, Yan, and screenwriter Christina Hodson get a truly great villain going here. The strangest part of Fantabulous, between McGregor’s New Wave gangster antics and Robbie doing crime and fighting thugs in the streets of Gotham, is how much it feels like a realization of the DC Batman movies going back to the beginning. Well, not Adam West, but Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. Birds of Prey’s got an actual good sense of humor about itself. It lets itself have fun and stretch to get to certain jokes. The truly terrifying moments in the film make up for it. It’s not just McGregor’s arrogant, privileged sadism, it’s him having even more dangerous sidekick Chris Messina. Because Messina knowingly eggs McGregor on. And they come into the movie cutting people’s faces off so there’s the imagination is rightly spinning.

Throw in Yan, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, production designer K.K. Barrett, and costumer designer Erin Benach’s “reality,” which sort of toughens up a cop comedy to the point where you can have Robbie and Winstead’s costumed antics and not have it break character. Yan and Libatique open with a great scene of urban destruction; it’s very realistically rendered. As the film introduces more and more outlandish elements, the visual tone stays constant. It’s not until the end Birds breaks out the obviously CGI landscapes, at which point Yan and company have earned the leeway. It’s a bit of a cartoon anyway, right?

The third act’s not great. Birds just doesn’t have an ending. Instead of just stopping, the film wraps everything it can together and hopes the cast can pull it off. The cast and some excellent fight choreography, which is geared for eventual laughs not ouches, succeed.

But the point of the movie isn’t the fight, the missing diamond, the girl power… it’s Robbie. And for the great showcase Fantabulous gives Robbie, it doesn’t give her enough. The part’s not there. Because to put the part there… you couldn’t have the entertaining action comedy. Or at least the jokes wouldn’t land in the same way. So it’s not a good ending but it’s a reluctant fine. It does work. It just doesn’t excel and when you’ve spent ninety minutes watching everything excel, something not excelling is a smash on the breaks.

So me being upset about Robbie not getting a better character study aside, Fantabulous is a thorough success. Yan, Robbie, and McGregor are the major standouts—though Yan’s crew all deserves major acknowledgement, especially the costume and production designs, the photography, the editing. I have no memory of Daniel Pemberton’s score, but the soundtrack’s great and, whatever Pemberton does works.

Oh. And the now infamous sandwich scene. It’s remarkable. The film often is.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Cathy Yan; screenplay by Christina Hodson, based on the DC Comics characters created by Robert Kanigher, Carmine Infantino, Paul Levitz, Joe Staton, Joey Cavalieri, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Mitch Brian, Kelley Puckett, and Damion Scott; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Jay Cassidy; music by Daniel Pemberton; production designer, K.K. Barrett; costume designer, Erin Benach; produced by Sue Kroll, Margot Robbie, and Bryan Unkeless; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), Ewan McGregor (Roman Sionis), Rosie Perez (Renee Montoya), Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Dinah Lance), Ella Jay Basco (Cassandra Cain), Chris Messina (Victor Zsasz), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Helena Bertinelli), Ali Wong (Ellen Yee), and Steven Williams (Captain Erickson).