This Week's Film Reviews (Aug 14, 2020)

13 Aug 2020

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BLACK WATER: ABYSS (Australia 2020) **1/2

Directed byAndrew Traucki

BLACK WATER: ABYSS is the sequel to the relatively unknown 2007 Aussie horror BLACK WATER in which a killer crocodile stalks its victims stuck in a tree in a remote area. of Northern Australia.  That film did relatively well, garnishing a few awards as well.  The sequel directed by Andrew Traucki (he co-directed the original) is more ambitious with the characters now venturing into an underground hidden cave where a new killer croc lies in wait.  The same premise of victims having to escape from a place totally sheltered from the rest of the world while at the mercy of a crocodile appears to be the favourite theme.

The film begins with the title indicating once again the setting of Northern Australia which is interesting since the scene opens with two Japanese, Akito (Louis Toshio Okada) and Miyuki (Rumi Kikuchi), on a hiking trail.  After getting lost, they fall into a hole that leads to their dismemberment by the croc.  Their body parts lie in full display later on in the film for the 5 main characters to view.

The story moves on to two couples about to take a holiday.  The main couple appears to be Eric (Luke Mitchell) and Jennifer (Jessica McNamee) and the secondary couple Viktor and his girlfriend Yolanda (Amali Golden).  They are met by buddy Cash (Anthony J. Sharpe) who tells them about this hidden cave.  How does Cash know about the cave?  Apparently, Cash is supposed to have been searching for these two missing Japanese tourists when he discovered it.  Cash is as his name implies, out to make some money from his discovery.  The five venture down the hole by rope, eventually getting trapped underground when a storm seals their way they entered amidst rising flood waters.  This is the appropriate time for Mr. Crocodile to appear to offer audiences some terror.

Occasionally feeling like a rip-off from JAWS, director Traucki uses the old Hitchcock trick (imitated by Spielberg in JAWS), not to show the monster till at least half way into the movie in order to enhance audience anticipation.  (Hitchcock showed the first bird attack more than half way through THE BIRDS.)  The tactic works.  Actually not much of the croc is seen on camera and when seen, looks quite ridiculous chomping up a full human body.

Where’s film works best is when Traucki uses the claustrophobic setting of the underground cave with its rising waters to instil fear on his characters.  Where it gets tricky is when he introduces the relationship problems of the two couples.  Eric has been cheating on Jennifer with Yolander, who is pregnant.  Whose baby is it?  Eric’s or boyfriend Viktor’s, who has just recovered from cancer.  Then there is smart talking Cash who is only were to be the first one ticked off by the crocodile.  It is safe to say that a few more victims will fall prey without revealing who they are.  The final plot twist at the end of the film is really silly and totally out of place, spoiling what could have been a decent horror movie.

Director Traucki plays his film seriously resulting in a horror flick generally devoid of humour, but delivers the goods for fans of this genre.  The film is already out on VOD on August the 11th.

Trailer: undefined

HOWARD (USA 2020) ****
Directed by Don Hahn


Made and released in 2018, it sure took a while before a more polished HOWARD, a wonderfully enlightening documentary can be viewed in Canada.  HOWARD is a documentary on the life of songwriter Howard Ashman, who wrote the lyrics for the songs in the Disney classics like THE LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (the doc opens with him conducting the score for this film, beautifully shot illustrating the care that goes into creating Disney magic, especially in an animated musical) and ALADDIN as well as the stage musical, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.  The maestro died in March 1991 of complications from AIDS at the early age of 40.

HOWARD tells the man’s story.

After a brief showcasing of Howard Ashman’s artistry, director Hahn (who produced THE LITTLE MERMAID) goes right into his biography when he was a child living with his younger sister and parents.

The segments where Howard’s Disney bosses, colleagues and his friends talk candidly about his AIDs sickness are unbelievably moving.  Though hardly any one dies of AIDs theses days, the reminiscences on Howard’s sickness make one more sympathetic to his impatience on getting his songs right or his temper tantrums.  It is as if he does not have much time left with his life thetas then shortened and all these people standing in the way obstructing what he can do.

Hahn’s doc has a different look to it. During the audio interviews, he uses ‘speech bubbles’ indicating who is speaking.  At the same time, the audience can examine the relationship of the person speaking with Howard.

More poignant is the fact that Alan Menken composed the score for the film, while Chris Bacon adapted the score.  When Hahn showed a reel of the movie to Menken, who worked with Ashman on several projects until the latter's passing, he told Hahn that "[he has] to score this movie". According to Hahn, Menken composed the score during the holiday season, and describe his score as "one of the most personal and touching scores that [he had heard] from him”  It shows.

Besides the doc showcasing Howard’s music, there is fair portion of it devoted to Howard’s personal relationships.  His first relationship with Stuart (aka Snooze) is a good example of love at first sight.  They studied together and then moved to New York together where they started an independent theatre.  Everyone dreams of having a relationship like this one.  But alas, this does not last due to their big difference in personalities.   Start was fiercely charismatic and loved to go out to have wild affairs, while Howard was the opposite.  Stuart was the first to die AIDs.  The romance and breakup are detailed amidst archive photos.

Hahn has created a doc about a very-talent music composer and made his story human enough to touch audience’s hearts.

HOWARD premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, and was nominated for the Best Documentary Award at the 2018 Heartland Film Festival, before having a limited theatrical run on December 18, 2018.  The film is now available on Disney+.

Trailer: undefined


Directed by Daniel Roby


TARGET NUMBER ONE is the Canadian title of a drama/thriller released in the United States under another title MOST WANTED.  The synopsis on imdb goes: In 1989, a Canadian journalist investigates the circumstances surrounding the suspicious arrest of a heroin addict imprisoned in a Thai jail.   But the script is written to tell two stories that of the journalist, Victor Malarek (Josh Hartnett sporting the most ugly moustache imaginable - a the film is set in the 80’s before it went out of fashion) and that of the junkie, Daniel Leger (Antoine Olivier Pilon).

When the film begins, Leger meets Glen Picker (Jim Gaffigan) who sets him up with the cops led by Sergeant Al Cooper (Stephen McHattie) for money to be sold as a stool pigeon for a big drug deal inThailand.  Leger is not the big fish hooper thought and has trouble but tries to score a smaller deal.  During the exchange he is caught and sentenced to prison in Thailand.  Leger will rot in prison for the rest of his life.  But his being set up means that he should not be responsible.  Malarek visits him in prison to hear his story of how the cops set him up and arrested him.  And the story goes on, told from Leger’s and  Malerek’s points of view.  But there is a major nonlinearity in the timeline of Leger’s story which makes the film a whole lot confusing.

Leger is shown in jail before he is being arrested.  His story jumps to and fro in time.  On the other hand, Malarek is not seen during Leger's arrest, so Malerek’s story unfolds linearly in time.  Director Roby’s script which he wrote should have the timelines tidied up.  Myself, I had to pause to figure out what is happening and when. 

Of the two stories, Leger’s is the more interesting wth his part filmed in Thailand.  Pilon who plays Leger shows promise and he quickly enables the audience to feel sorry for his character, warts and all.  On the other hand, Malerek’s character is a too familiar one that audiences have seen before - the over hard-working journalist who abides with his principle thus neglecting his family.  In the film’s first scene, he misses the wife, Anna’s (Amanda Coot) delivery because of his work.  Audiences need not have to see the couple break up because of the husband’s dedication only to come together again in the end.  The film contains two other excellent supporting performances that of Gaffigan as the loud-mouthed liar and Cory Lipman playing the sadistic rookie cop Al, one that nobody wants to cross paths with.   Al is supposed to be the son of Sergeant Al Cooper (according to the film’s credits) though it is not specifically mentioned in the film. 

Despite its script flaws, TARGET NUMBER ONE is an entertaining watch, which according to the opening credits is based on actual events.  The film is currently playing.

Trailer: undefined

UNHINGED (USA 2020) ***

Directed by Derrick Borte

The synopsis on the movie database, imdb, of the one word titled film UNHINGED simply reads: ‘After a confrontation with an unstable man at an intersection, a woman becomes the target of his rage’.  This is a simple plotted road rage thriller that takes no genius to guess its entire story.  Still the film comes through entertaining enough (the devil is in the details), playing into a well-worn genre but following a successful formula effectively.

Expect the film to abound in cliches which include:

  • the villain coming to a violent end at the hands the protagonist 
  • the cops that arrive right after the villain is killed
  • all the unimportant characters (eg. girlfriend of protagonist’s brother) getting killed off
  • little objects noticed at one point in the film (eg. candy-cane scissors) emerging as protagonist’s weapon at another point in the movie
  • the protagonist suffering terribly before fighting back
  • even the well-worn line used in countless films: “we will get through this” is uttered by the protagonist

The villain in this piece is so disgusting that the script does not even give him a name.  He is simply listed in the credits as ‘the man’.  The man is played menacingly enough by Russell Crowe (Academy Award Winner for GLADIATOR and twice nominated for BEAUTIFUL MIND and THE INSIDER) who looks extremely worn out, physically and mentally.   It is interesting to note that the role was initially offered to Nicholas Cage who is famous for portraying unhinged characters as in Nick Powell’s PRIMAL.

Derrick Borte (AMERICAN DREAMER) directs from a script by Carl Ellsworth (DISTURBIA and RED EYE) in a no-nonsense manner delivering the goods in a fashion that is expected from this kind of action suspense thriller genre.

The film’s best scene is surprisingly one out of the blue, a hilarious one in a film that is generally devoid of humour.  A woman is seen doing her eyelashes using the mirror of her car visor while ‘the man’ is crashing against cars on the freeway in his chase after Rachel’s car.  The message is to concentrate on driving while driving and not be distracted by such unnecessary activity.  This is actually an important message as other scenes seem to imply that it is ok to use a cellphone while driving.  The other best scene is the really tense initial confrontation between Rachel and ‘the man’ where she just refuses to apologize.  It is a familiar scene where everyone has similarly experienced where ego precedes politeness.

Relative newcomer Caren Pistoria holds her own in her performance that matches that of Crowe’s.

Despite the film’s cliches and predictability, Borte’s necessarily nasty film works primarily of the violence that he dishes out.  This film would not have been interesting if it is made as a PG-rated film.

UNHINGED opens in theatres August 14th.  It should be seen on the big screen for the excitingly shot car chases.

Trailer: undefined

VALLEY OF THE GODS (Poland/Luxembourg 2019) **

Directed by Leah Majewski

To those unfamiliar with the place, Valley of the Gods is a scenic backcountry area is southeastern Utah, near Mexican Hat, USA.  It is a hidden gem with scenery similar to that of nearby Monument Valley.  Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever.  But most important point is that Monument Valley is located on Navajo Nation land. (Visitors exploring the area usually travel with a Navajo guide and a permit from the tribe is needed before you can hike into the backcountry.)   This is the setting of Polish director Leah Majewski’s new film, which he apparently got the tribe’s approval to film on their land.

Majewski’s majestic film tells three separate stories but entwined together, told in 10 chapter with a heading.  The first chapter is called Tauros, which is name of the trillionaire who wants to die uranium on the land.  The second chapter is called Leetso, and one has to see the film to know Leetso means.  Not that these headings have any solid meaning but it is a few word summary of the next ten minutes which is as organized as Majewki gets.  His film is incoherent as a whole.

The setting is in the VALLEY OF THE GODS.  The film opens with the words that describe the Navajo creation story, just as the creation story in the Bible which states that God created the heavens and the earth. 

The words go like this:

When he heard the cry of the infant…

Lightning was flashing everywhere…

He could see nothing so he made way to the very spot

and so on…. ending with the line:

and he saw a giant stone creature….. 

the creature which will appear at the end of the film in a climax that needs to be seen to be believed.

The Navajo story reads something more complex involving this huge stone creature.  The three stories all include the Navajo tribe, contrasting abundance and poverty.   They involve a middle-class writer, John Ecas (Josh Hartnett), an eccentric trillionaire (John Malkovich), and a struggling Navajo community.  Post-divorce, copywriter John undertakes the biography of the richest man on earth, who is dead-set on mining sacred lands for uranium.  When modern advance runs afoul of long-dormant guardians from ancient legend, even the most unimaginable wealth may soon meet its match.

VALLEY OF THE GODS has stunning production sets, costumes, wardrobe and music.  But director Majewski does whatever he wants with his film, and does not give a fuck what others think, pardon my Navajo language.  When one listens to his views or Hartnett’s interviews, one cannot get the message of what Majewski is trying to do.  The result is a beautifully crafted, frustrating film - an artistic piece that will be considered plain awful  by those with little patience for cinema.

The film is already available on various digital platforms like VOD, digital, DVD and BluRay.

Trailer: undefined

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