When you’re afraid to go outside and it’s too hot, anyway, it’s nice to have a good excuse to lollygag on the couch. Lucky for us, there are some very fine movie options to take in this sweltering, contaminated weekend. Thank you, Hollywood.
The Old Guard
Streaming on Netflix.
by Hope Madden
Let’s start with this piece of obviousness: Charlize Theron can do anything. From indie dramas to bawdy comedies to badass action, Theron commits and convinces.
In Netflix’s The Old Guard, she plays the leader of a small but immortal group of soldiers eluding capture while trying to train a new member. It’s Book One in a series, and that can be a dangerous spot for a film because that tends to mean a lot of exposition and not enough conflict.
Greg Rucka adapts his own source material and director Gina Prince-Bythewood makes the most of his screenplay and her cast.
She flanks Theron (spectacular, obviously) with actors who are, first and foremost, talented actors. The fact that they make for believable mercenaries is a really excellent bonus.
The ever versatile Matthias Schoenaerts gives the film its aching heart while KiKi Layne proves herself to be as convincing here busting heads as she was at drawing tears in If Beale Street Could Talk. Though it’s unfortunate he couldn’t have stolen a little more screen time, the great Chiwetel Ejiofor is a welcome presence, as always.
So what Prince-Bythewood does is surround Theron with other talented actors whose versatility compliments hers. This brilliant move let the filmmaker take a somewhat by-the-numbers superhero tale and tell it with a restraint that takes advantage of her cast’s flexibility and talent.
In Prince-Bythewood’s hands, The Old Guard explores the same universal themes mined in most superhero films, but she tells the tale as a taut and tactical military experience. The understatement makes the action sequences stand out, the filmmaker requesting your close examination of each bout and each battle, whether hand-to-hand, bullet-to-brain or saber-to-throat.
It pays off, delivering a thrilling action movie that doesn’t disregard your brain. Even better, this is a movie that tugs at your emotions without the need for swelling strings or sentiment to convince you.
That’s what happens when one formidable women pulls together a group of similarly skilled badasses.
Streaming on traditional platforms.
by Hope Madden
Many a film has used a building—a haunted house, for instance—to represent the mental state of a character. From Shirley Jackson to Stephen King to Daniel Kehlmann, writers have lured us into perfectly lovely structures only to hold us inside, our ugly thoughts manifesting as danger, our madness creating a labyrinthine, Escher-esque trap.
Such is the case for Relic, a compassionate but clear-eyed look at a different type of hereditary horror.
Edna (Robyn Nevin) has been missing for at least three days. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) move into Edna’s place to keep an eye out for her while local police investigate.
And then, there she is, and it’s entirely likely she never even left the house.
Well, that can’t be—unless there’s something seriously weird about this house.
Co-writer/director Natalie Erika James keeps her metaphor right at the surface of the film. That keeps Relic from ever truly terrifying, honestly. There’s no simultaneous pull that something supernatural is afoot. But the sense of dread takes on a whole new tenor, and the film’s horror is honest as it hits on an emotional level.
Nevin does an admirable job with Edna, creating a fully dimensional character, one who’s tough enough that when she becomes vulnerable, it comes as a jolt.
Mortimer and Heathcote strike a believable love/disappointment/blame balance and the emotional tug of war among the three women rings sadly true.
There’s not a lot of depth to this story. Relic isn’t hiding its themes—there are no subplots or red herrings, and the a-ha moments that allow Sam and Kay to piece together the mystery of Gram’s troubles feel almost perfunctory.
But James doesn’t shy away from the ugliness, guilt, anger or grief that fuel relationships tied up in this particularly painful genealogical horror. With its evocative analogy, Relic shows us what we are really afraid of, and it isn’t ghosts.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Streaming on traditional platforms.
by George Wolf
Similar to the hybrid reality it creates, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is an oddly compelling cocktail. It’s like a foul odor you step back from quickly, then find perversely comforting once you’ve had time to soak in it.
And no matter how many of the film’s most effecting moments are manufactured, there’s much authenticity to be found in the smoke-filled haze of the Roaring 20s lounge.
“This is a place you can go when nobody else don’t want your ass.”
Sitting unceremoniously at the edge of Las Vegas, the “20s” is down to its final day. Directors Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross drop us off before noon, when grizzled regular Michael (Michael Martin) is cleaning up in the bathroom and daytime bartender Mark is hanging up some cheap decorations for the farewell party.
“What kind of party is it if an Australian guy doesn’t take his pants off?”
As drinks are poured, ashtrays are emptied and daytime TV gives way to nighttime jukebox singalongs, we get to know the parade of souls that have come to call this dive bar home.
What The Florida Project was to Disney World, Bloody Nose is to Lost Wages, eschewing tourist playgrounds for the world weariness of an existence in exile, and of outsiders no longer bothering to look in.
“You think I’m better than Fireball? I’m not!”
The Turner brothers shot their exteriors outside Vegas, but couldn’t find a suitable bar for filming until they landed in a New Orleans dive. Their cameras don’t always make it out of the frame, but the film’s mood is so encompassing you hardly care. This is a storytelling experiment left to its own ends, which end up being delightfully and desperately character-driven.
“You know how much I love you?”
As the night bartender (Shay Walker) tries to keep her teen son and his friends from smoking weed and stealing beer, we’re reminded how quickly the outside world will move on, scattering these barflies without mercy.
My friend Jason recently remarked that “bars are the only enduring sacred human places,” and these 98 minutes at the Roaring 20s are full of that sacred humanity. There may have been a few strings pulled at setup, but those tears – both theirs and yours – will feel plenty real.
“I always come to this bar…and feel like family.”
The Beach House
Streaming on Shudder.
by Hope Madden
An entitled young man and his put upon girlfriend head to his parents’ unused beach house to work some things out. They’re not alone, and I don’t just mean the lovely older couple who’d already made plans to borrow the vacation home.
Writer/director Jeffrey A. Brown sets up a situation that could go a lot of horrifying ways. He builds expectations and it’s up to you to wait and see which ones the film decides to indulge. The path Brown takes meshes terror and science fiction, beauty and body horror.
Noah Le Gros’s Randall is burdened with the privilege of always being wrong, of always making a mess for others to clean up, of always getting away with a sad-eyed apology but never, ever thinking that maybe he shouldn’t be the one making the decisions. Le Gros does an excellent job with the role – Randall isn’t contemptible, he’s just born this way.
Emily (Liana Liberato) is about to start work on an advanced degree in astrochemistry. Lucky thing, that—one of several conveniences The Beach House needs you to accept. But this budget-conscious indie is worth a little suspension of disbelief because, between the performances and the commitment to genre, it delivers a satisfying thrill.
Maryann Nagel provides a fine performance as Jane, the unsuspecting family friend already vacationing at Randall’s parents’ place. Her arc is terrifying because the performance is so compassionate. Likewise, genre favorite Jake Weber offers a heartbreaking turn as Jane’s beloved Mitch, a look-on-the-bright-side kind of guy who is quickly running out of sunshine.
At just about the time Brown digs in with some nasty body horror, he also starts to squander some of the good will he earned in the film’s early going. The action and anxiety of the last half of the picture rely too heavily on trope: a surprise in the basement, a conveniently placed CB, a timely announcement over an AM radio station.
But Brown and Liberato remain true to Emily’s arc, and that creates an intriguing new look at planetary evolution.