Review: ‘The East’ (2021), starring Martijn Lakemeier and Marwan Kenzari

September 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front row: Martijn Lakemeier and Jonas Smulders in “The East” (Photo by Milan Van Dril/Magnet Releasing)

The East” (2021)

Directed by Jim Taihuttu

Dutch and Indonesian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1945 to 1950, in Indonesia and the Netherlands, the dramatic film “The East” features a cast of white and Asian characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young Dutch man is haunted by a dark family secret and his past experiences as a soldier in the Indonesian War of Independence. 

Culture Audience: “The East” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about harsh realities that soldiers experience during and after war, with frank observations of colonialism.

Marwan Kenzari and Martijn Lakemeier in “The East” (Photo by Milan Van Dril/Magnet Releasing)

“The East” could have been just another war film about a young man who starts off as a naïve soldier and ends up emotionally damaged. However, this sprawling epic about a Dutch soldier in the Indonesian War of Independence has some intriguing and unpredictable twists. It’s a movie that’s entirely believable (it’s being advertised as “based on true events”), but it treads on familiar territory in frequently repetitive ways.

“The East” can be considered a better-than-average war movie and should be commended for telling an Indonesian War of Independence story, which has rarely been made into a movie. However, “The East” won’t be considered a war movie classic, such as “Apocalypse Now” or “Saving Private Ryan.” The problem isn’t the 140-minute total running time for “The East,” but it’s how the movie has the occasional tendency to plod into scenes that don’t really go anywhere.

“The East” director Jim Taihuttu co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Mustafa Duygulu. It’s a story that is told from the perspective of people from a colonial nation (the Netherlands) fighting against a territory (Indonesia) that wants independence. The filmmakers made sure to note the irony that many of the same Dutch soldiers who fought aganst Nazi oppression in World War II were fighting to keep the Indonesian people oppressed by the Dutch in the Indonesian War of Independence, which lasted from 1945 to 1949.

The movie opens in 1945, not long after the Allies (including the Netherlands) have declared victory in World War II. The Dutch military doesn’t have time to rest on its laurels, because Dutch soldiers are being recruited to go to Indonesia to fight against the increasing rebellion of Indonesian people who want their freedom from the Dutch government. “The East,” which takes place from 1945 to 1950, has scenes that take place during and after this war.

Among the new Dutch soldier recruits is Johan Leonard Maria de Vries (played by Martijn Lakemeier), a fresh-faced 19-year-old from Arcen, a village in the northern part of the Dutch province Limburg. Johan, who volunteered to join the Dutch Army, is quiet and keeps mostly to himself. However, on his first day of boot camp, he meets Mattias Cohen (played by Jonas Smulders), who is as hot-headed as Johan is even-tempered. Over time, the brutalities of war change Johan’s sensitive personality, and he becomes cold-hearted and aggressive in combat.

The soldiers in this group of recruits are all in the same age range (late teens to early 20s), and many of them realistically talk about something that preoccupies their thoughts: sex. Expect to hear a lot of macho bragging about sexual exploits; homophobic comments; insulting teasing of anyone who’s not as sexually experienced as the “alpha males”; and constant discussions of looking for casual sex with willing women and prostitutes.

The biggest blowhard in the soldier group is Werner de Val (played by Jim Deddes), who is first seen in the movie boasting about how his father paid for a hooker to service Werner as a gift before Werner went off to war. Werner is a bully who tests other recruits to see if they have the courage to stand up to him. Those who show they’re not intimidated by Werner usually end up earning his respect.

“The East” thankfully doesn’t make a mistake that a lot of war movies make in trying to tell the stories of too many military people at the same time. “The East” keeps things simple by only focusing on the lives of only a handful of military people. Johan is the protagonist, but Mattias and Werner also get enough screen time as supporting characters with distinct personalities.

The recruits are stationed at barracks called Camp Matjan Liar, where they have two main authority figures, who are both no-nonsense leaders: Major Penders (played by Peter Paul Muller), who reports to the camp’s Commander Mulder (played by Mike Reus). But outside of the camp, there’s a military leader who ends up being the most important to Johan and this story: a mysterious free agent nicknamed The Turk (played by Marwan Kenzari), whose real name is Raymond Westerling.

Johan first encounters The Turk when he helps Johan defend an Indonesian man who is being beaten by Japanese soldiers on the street, because the man had accused the soldiers of stealing from him. Because the Japanese military was the enemy to the Dutch in World War II, the Dutch consider any Japanese soldiers in Indonesia to be the enemy too. The Turk is passing by when he sees this civilian attack, and he is able to get the Japanese soldiers to back off from their assault victim and leave.

Johan is immediately impressed by The Turk’s fearless and commanding presence. Back at the barracks, Johan asks who The Turk is and finds out that he is a half-Greek, half-Dutch independent military operative for hire who trained in the British Navy program. He’s nicknamed The Turk because he grew up in Istanbul. Because of The Turk’s successful missions and because he has the added benefit of speaking several languages, The Turk has become somewhat of a legend in the world of military combat.

Johan eventually has other encounters with The Turk, who ends up recruiting Johan and Mattias into an elite special ops unit that The Turk is heading for the Dutch military. The Turk thinks that Johan has a lot of potential to become The Turk’s top protégé. However, it should come as no surprise that Johan sees and is forced to do things under The Turk’s command that eat away at Johan’s conscience. Johan then must decide how far he’s willing to go to please his mentor and rise through the ranks in the Dutch military.

“The East” doesn’t dismiss the perspectives of the Indonesian people during this war, but this is very much a Dutch film. Most of the Indonesian people are portrayed as innocent residents who try to stay out of the military’s way, but it’s often impossible when military raids are common during the war. The Turk has an Indonesian soldier as a right-hand man named Samuel Manuhio (played by Joenoes Polnaija), who obviously believes that Indonesia should remain under Dutch control.

At first, Johan is proud to be part of this special ops team led by The Turk. One of the first things that they do is help a local man in Semarang who says that his two daughters have been kidnapped by a rebel gang called Gaga Hitam. The gang’s leader is named Bakar (played by Lukman Sardi), who is one of the people involved in the rebellion to overthrow the Dutch government in Indonesia. It’s all the Turk needs to know to go after Bakar and his gang.

As gung-ho as Johan and the other Dutch soldiers are about protecting the Dutch government’s reign over Indonesia, there are literally signs that people in Indonesia don’t want to be ruled by the Netherlands anymore. When the recruits arrive by boat in an early scene in the movie, they see another boat with signs greeting them that say “Murderers” and “Free the Indies.” And the racism that’s ingrained in most colonialism is on full display with some of the Dutch soldiers, such as Mattias, who calls the native Indonesians “brown monkeys” in a scene that ends violently.

On a personal level, Johan finds himself getting emotionally attached to a brothel prostitute named Gita Tamim (played by Denise Aznam), who’s about five or six years older than he is. Johan met Gita on a drunken night out with some of his fellow soldiers who went to the brothel. Gita and Johan eventually go out on dates together outside of their sex worker/client encounters. It takes a little while for Gita to let down her guard to trust Johan, but not enough to invite him into her home. Johan eventually finds out if Gita wants a more serious and committed relationship than the one they’ve been having.

“The East” takes place mostly during Johan’s war experiences, but the movie also has flash-forward scenes to show what life was like for him in the Netherlands after the war, circa 1950. It’s here that viewers see that Johan experiences more disillusionment when he finds out the hard way that the Dutch government didn’t keep its promise to have jobs for war veterans who came home from Indonesia.

Johan has difficulty getting a job after the war, because the Dutch lost the war, so many people in the Netherlands treat these war veterans as “failures.” It’s similar to how Vietnam War veterans from the U.S. were treated when they got back home to America. Johan, who is a loner, doesn’t have much family support either. His mother has died, and his father Johan de Vries Sr. (played by Reinout Bussemaker) is in prison.

Some secrets are revealed in this story that explain why Johan reacts in the way that he does to the two people he became emotionally close to during the war: Gita and The Turk. These extra layers to the story make “The East” more compelling than the usual “combat veteran comes home” war movie. Johan isn’t much of a talker, but Lakemeier is an expressive actor with his face and body language so that he makes a memorable impression as this conflicted soldier.

Kenzari’s portrayal of The Turk is also riveting to watch. On the surface, this military leader is self-assured and charismatic. But he’s also devious and ruthless. His charm is a tool that he uses to manipulate people into doing things that go against their morality, just so his subordinates can get the praise and emotional rewards that they crave from him. And although his fearlnessess is certainly an asset in combat, it’s also a sign of someone who could be a dangerous sociopath.

“The East” director Taihuttu has a very good eye for staging scenes in cinematic and authentic ways. There isn’t one scene that looks like a fake movie set. However, the movie has a tendency to meander with scenes that linger too long on people walking or traveling through areas and not doing much. These prolonged shots tend to drag the pace of the film down a little bit, but these are minor flaws that don’t take away from the overall impact of the film. Viewers who have the patience to watch the film until the very end will see how “The East” is not a typical war movie and that not all damage from war is in a combat zone.

Magnet Releasing released “The East” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on August 13, 2021. The movie was released in the Netherlands on May 13, 2021, and in Indonesia on August 7, 2021.

Review: ‘The Old Guard,’ starring Charlize Theron

July 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Marwan Kenzari, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlize Theron, Luca Marinelli and Kiki Layne (Photo by Aimee Spinks/Netflix)

“The Old Guard”

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

Culture Representation: Taking place in France, England and briefly in Morocco, Afghanistan and South Sudan, the action flick “The Old Guard” has a racially diverse cast (white, black and Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Immortal social-justice warriors battle against a greedy corporate mogul and his mercenaries who want to capture the immortals so that their special powers can be mined for profits.

Culture Audience: “The Old Guard” will appeal primarily to fans of Charlize Theron and people who like extra-violent superhero movies with underlying social messages.

Charlize Theron in “The Old Guard” (Photo by Aimee Spinks/Netflix)

With so many superhero movies and TV shows flooding the market, what makes “The Old Guard” stand out from the pack is that morality and alliances aren’t always as cut-and-dry as they are in other superhero stories about good versus evil. Although there’s plenty of thrilling action in “The Old Guard,” what will keep audiences coming back for more are the protagonists’ distinct personalities and the feeling that their background stories have fascinating layers of extra intrigue.

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Greg Rucka (he adapted the screenplay from his “The Old Guard” graphic novel series), “The Old Guard” movie starts off by introducing a tight-knit group of four immortal social-justice warriors who have lived for centuries but play by their own rules. These immortals have the enigmatic ability to have any of their wounds heal quickly, which is why these fighters are virtually indestructible when they are physically attacked.

They don’t know how they got their superpowers and they don’t know when their superpowers will stop working. But they got these superpowers at some point in their lives when they were supposed to die but instead mysteriously recovered. They can feel pain when wounded, and someone who has these newly acquired superpowers will not be able to heal as quickly as someone who’s had these superpowers longer. Technically, these immortals aren’t really “immortal,” because they can’t live forever, but they have the ability to live for centuries.

All of this information is not explained up front in “The Old Guard” movie, but instead these details are revealed in bits and pieces, much like the personalities of main players involved. The group’s leader (and the one who’s lived the longest) is Andromache the Scythian, nicknamed Andy (played by Charlize Theron), a tough-as-nails cynic who’s more afraid of being exposed and captured than she is of dying.

Andy’s right-hand man in the group is Booker (played by Matthias Schoenaerts), an adventurous French soldier, who became an immortal during the War of 1812. Rounding out the quartet are lovers/soul mates Joe (played Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (played by Luca Marinelli), a Middle Eastern man and an Italian man who became immortal while they were fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades. In this movie, Andy won’t say when she became immortal.

Booker is similar to Andy in having a certain jaded quality to his personality, but Booker is a lot more impulsive than Andy, who is always on guard about their group being exposed as immortals. Joe is more vocal and overtly passionate than Nicky, who tends to be more level-headed and sensitive. Together, they have been a “found family” for centuries.

Andy and her group make money as underground hired mercenaries for people or causes that they feel comfortable helping. While in Marrakesh, Morocco, a former CIA agent named James Copley (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) asks the group to help him rescue a group of 17 South Sudanese students (ages 8 to 13), who were kidnapped by militia, who murdered the teachers in the school. At first, Andy doesn’t want to do the mission. “We don’t do repeats,” she tells Booker, “It’s too risky.”

However, Andy changes her mind after she Copley (a widower whose wife died of ALS) tells her that food and water have not ben brought into the hostage area for several days. Andy and her crew travel to South Sudan. And this rescue mission leads the immortals to find out that they’re being hunted by a nerdy but ruthless leader of a corporate pharmaceutical company: Steven Merrick (played by Harry Melling) of Merrick Pharmacy.

Merrick wants to capture all the known immortals on Earth, so Merrick’s team of scientists can figure out and extract that physical components that can heal wounds and make people live for centuries. Merrick thinks he’s in a race against time because he wants to get the patent on this superpower product before any of the company’s competitors. The ultimate goal? Untold wealth and power.

Merrick has also begun selling a new pharmaceutical product that caused thousands of lab rats to die, and this new product’s flaws will soon be discovered by the general public. If he can find the secret to these immortals’ regeneration powers, it can be used as an antidote to the faulty pharmaceutical product that Merrick rushed to market.

Meanwhile, the quartet of immortals begins having shared dreams of a young lieutenant in the U.S. Marines named Nile Freeman (played by KiKi Layne), who is currently stationed in Afghanistan. They’re certain that Nile is a long-lost immortal who doesn’t know it yet. While in Afghanistan, Nile is part of a military team that captures a known terrorist who’s hiding in a small village dwelling.

The terrorist slashes Nile’s throat in such a deep and vicious way that it seems obvious that Nile will die from that jugular wound. However, not only does she survive, but the wound mysteriously disappears. Nile explains to her incredulous fellow soldiers that doctors were able to cover up her neck wound with a “skin graft,” but even Nile knows how unbelievable that story sounds. People who thought she was going to die start to look at her differently, as if she’s some kind of supernatural freak.

As Nile is still trying to figure out why she seems to have regeneration superpowers, she’s told that she’s going to be transferred to another station for further medical exams. Before that can happen, Andy abducts Nile and takes her to a remote desert area. Andy tells a disbelieving Nile that Nile is now an immortal who has to go into hiding with Andy and her group of immortals because they are being hunted.

Nile is reluctant to go with this stranger, who tells Nile that she will have to cut off contact with her family. Nile is also having a hard time believing that she’s now immortal until some vigorous physical fights with Andy prove that Andy is telling the truth. But just like a stubborn pupil who won’t listen to a teacher who knows best, Nile clashes with Andy several times because Nile has a lot of difficulty adjusting to her new life.

During the course of the story, Nile opens up to Andy and the rest of the immortals, while they do the same with her. It’s revealed that Andy’s biggest heartache and regret is how she couldn’t save her best friend Quynh (played by Van Veronica Ngo) from being put in an iron lady cage and buried in the ocean about 500 years ago, when Andy and Quynh were captured and persecuted for being witches.

Meanwhile, Booker is haunted by outliving his children, one of whom was a son who died of cancer in his early 40s. When Booker told his terminally ill son about his secret superpower, Booker was heartbroken over not being able to share that superpower with his dying son, who angrily and wrongly blamed Booker for not being able to save him from death. It’s one of the reasons why Andy thinks it’s a mistake to get too close to any “regular” human who might find out the immortals’ secrets.

As for Nile’s family, she was raised by a widowed mother after Nile’s military father died in combat when Nile was 11 years old. Because Nile cannot contact her family after joining Andy’s group, Nile feels a lot of reluctance and emotional conflict about what her life will be like from now on.

“The Old Guard” has a lot of expected violence and over-the-top stunts (some of the action scenes are more believable than others), but the movie’s real strength is conveying the “grass is always greener” frailties of human nature. Merrick and many others just like him think that people will be happier if they will never get sick and can live for centuries, while the ones who actually have the ability to live that long see it as a curse.

Through the immortals’ perspectives, “The Old Guard” shows that living for centuries can be emotionally exhausting. Death (which is feared by so many people) is a natural part of life that they haven’t been able to experience, thereby making them “eternal freaks.” However, on the flip side—as exemplified by Joe and Nicky—if two immortals find each other and become soul mates, death isn’t as easily welcomed.

Unlike other immortal “superheroes,” the superheroes in this story don’t know how long they can keep their superpowers, which can fade and eventually disappear, much like how a battery eventually loses its power. It’s that added element of the unknown that keeps things on edge. (The movie’s visual effects for the body regeneration scenes are very good and very believable.)

Theron (who is one of the producers of “The Old Guard”) has done plenty of action movies before—most notably 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” and 2017’s “Atomic Blonde”—so it’s no surprise that she can light up the screen with her commanding presence. Theron’s Andy character is the most intriguing of Theron’s action characters so far because Andy literally has centuries of stories to tell about her life. Layne does an impressive job of holding her own as Andy’s very reluctant protégée. It’s great to see Layne take on such a different role from her feature-film debut in 2018’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a heartbreaking drama in which she played a loyal girlfriend of a wrongly imprisoned man.

“The Old Guard” has grittiness and bloody violence that definitely don’t make this a family-friendly superhero movie. This is also a superhero movie that  acknowledges real-world historical issues. The Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia and the Civil War in the United States are two examples of the many history-making events that are referenced in this story, because these superhero soldiers were involved in some way in being on the right side of history.

And unlike most other superhero movies that don’t acknowledge homophobia in the world, “The Old Guard” has a scene where Joe and Nicky confront this bigotry in a way that will make romantics applaud. Joe and Nicky’s love story is one of the reasons why fans of this movie will want a sequel. And you better believe that the ending of “The Old Guard” makes it obvious that the filmmakers plan to make “The Old Guard” into a movie series.

This superhero saga might not satisfy people who want to know how the heroes got their superpowers. And these protagonists definitely aren’t saint-like: Their underground status means they often have to collaborate with criminals to get things done, such as in a scene where Andy and Nile use a Russian drug runner’s plane to get to where they need to go. But for people who might be intrigued by a story about warriors who are still trying to figure out their lives after living and fighting battles for centuries, “The Old Guard” offers an immersive experience into that world.

Netflix premiered “The Old Guard” on July 10, 2020.

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