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This Week's Film Reviews ( May 14, 2021)

07 May 2021

FILM REVIEW:

 

HIGH GROUND (Australia 2019) ****
Directed by Stephen Johnson

A minor success already everywhere it has or possibly shown, especially in native Australia, HIGH GROUND unites once again director Stephen Johnson and writer Chris Anastassiades  who worked together almost 20 years ago with their first effort YOLNGO BOY.  HIGH GROUND is a solid action drama depicting the unspeakable crimes the White man have committed on the indigenous people.

The film begins in Arnhem Land in Northern Australia 1919 with a peaceful scene.  An Aboriginal father and teaching his son to hunt in the beauty of the outback.  They return to their family near a river where disaster strikes.  In a security patrol, the police end up shooting and killing the daily members except for two.  The son Gutjuk hides underwater breathing through a reed and is saved while his uncle, Baywara is left for dead but still alive.  Gutjuk’s grandfather nurses Baywara back to life while the boy is rescued by a sympathetic Travis (Simon Baker) who is so disgusted with the massacre that he quits the police force after killing the other white men except for a missionary and his spotter.  This is an extremely violent scene to watch and expectedly so.  Director Johnson uses this unforgettable segment to root the rest of his story set 12 years after when Gutjuk has grown up to be a young man.

The rest of the film has Travis tracking down Baywara who is creating havoc in the region looting and burning the white man’s ranches with Gutjuk as his tracker.  The film focuses on the relationship between the two while they attempt to deal with the non-ending war between the Aborigines and the White man.

Australians will be able to relate more with the substance of the story as they would have seen quite a few similar pictures with the same theme.  However for western audiences in North America, much of what is seen on screen appears new.  One can hardly imagine the injustice and cruelty human beings are capable of.

In contrast to the horror, the film is set against the stunning landscapes of 1930s Arnhem Land, and shot by cinematographer Andrew Commis in the Kakadu National Park of the Northwest Territory.  The unfamiliar sights of the creatures of the land like the snakes, alligators, birds and insects such as thousands of ants feeding on a leaf are all on full display here.

The confrontation scene between the Aborigine and White chiefs depicts the differences of their laws.  The same issue is relevant in all colonial lands including North America where the White man has stolen the land of the Indigenous people and forced their law and principles on them.

The film is told from the points-of-view of two characters, Gutjik who at the same time is coming-of-age and learning the truth behind who had massacred his family.  The other is the sympathetic Travis who is stuck between what is right and what he is able to do with his limited power.

HIGH GROUND, the film is so titled as Travis is a sniper who can take advantage in a battle when on high ground overlooking the enemy and surroundings.  In one scene, Travis and Gutjik are on high ground, the metaphor of them being able to see what is really going on between the White Man and the Aborigines.  Yet, having that advantage does not mean winning the battle, as the film illustrates.

Trailer: 

THE KILLING OF TWO LOVERS (USA 2020) ****
Directed by Robert Machoian

The deed of THE KILLING OF TWO LOVERS could have occurred in the film’s first 5 minutes if not for the sound of someone using the bathroom distracting the man with the gun.  David (Clayne Crawford) has broken into the bedroom to find his wife, Niki (Sepideh Moafi) sleeping in the bed with her new lover, Derek (Chris Coy).   As he is about to fire the pistol, he hears the flush of the toilet and leaves through the front window of the house.  There is a long drive home in his car.

David desperately tries to keep his family of six together during a separation from his wife. They both agree to see other people but jealous David struggles to grapple with his wife's new relationship.

The theme of the film is the breakout of a marriage.  This theme was thrashed to death (but in a good way) in Noah Baumbach’s MARRIAGE STORY last year but the two film’s are highly different.  MARRIAGE STORY shows the process of the breakup while KILLING the aftermath.  The wife, Niki is more comfortable with her new lover and the kids.  In contrast, David is stuck living with his father (Bruce Graham) who hilariously treats him just as a little kid while getting to see his kids only on the weekends.  David spends a lot of time driving in his pick-up, where he often turns into a different person, full of anger when he is alone in his truck.  Beware when David gets into his truck.  There is also minimal dialogue in KILLING compared to MARRIAGE STORY.

There is not much that happens incident wise in the story.  David argues with his wife, plays with his children, argues with his eldest teen daughter, Avery (Avery Pizzoto) and yes, drives around, doing the odd job or so.  But emotionally, a lot transpires.  David is an emotional wreck, but keeps it cool when in front of other people.  With his kids, he is the perfect dad, caring for them, playing with them and asking them how they are doing in school.  He also knows how to deal with his teenage daughter.

One would think that the film would end up with David completely losing it and using his gun.  But director Machoian keeps the audience guessing and what audiences think might happen might very well not be the case.  Machoian steers his film towards a confrontational climax where David, the wife and her lover have an argument outside the house by the truck, where David has a gun hidden.   The climatic emotional confrontation is as exciting as a rollercoaster ride.

The stunning landscape of the snowy mountains is always in the background thanks to the talents of the d.p. Oscar Ignacio Jiménez.  The film is shot in the town of Kadosh, a little place out of nowhere in Utah - the remoteness of the place reflecting the emptiness David feels.  Yet the relationship between David and Niki is not hopeless.  Despite misunderstandings and David’s often childish behaviour, the two still have the spark of love for each other.  It is this spark that enables David to show tenderness and decency towards his family - to his wife and 3 children despite his caustic anger.

KILLING is an intense and absorbing watch.  I had initially opened the link just to check the sound/image synchronization and could not stop watching the film after that.  Writer/director Machoian debut feature is a real knockout.

Trailer: 

MISS ANGELA (USA 2020) **

Directed by Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood

The film introduces the subject, Angela Alvarez by the introduction of the Cuban by fellow Cuban actor, star and Academy Award Nominee Andy Garcia (THE GODFATHER III).  Garcia introduces her in Los Angeles at the posh Avalon as she renders the songs of her life.  Garcia also serves as executive producer for the film.

Angela Alvarez might be well known in Cuba but outside Cuba, her name might not be a familiar one.  Myself, I had never heard of her till watching the documentary, though I must admit I am not a music fan in general in the know.  As such, it would be difficult for most audiences to be excited about a documentary on Angela Alvarez, highlighted by the fact that she is not American.  It is then up to the film’s directors Lloyd Stanton and Paul Tooggod to make her as exciting a subject as can be and their doc intriguing.

The synopsis on imdb says the film tells the remarkable story of 91 year old Cuban-American singer-songwriter Angela Alvarez who's lifetime of songs were nearly lost to the world.   An inspiring tale of love, loss, struggle but ultimately triumph, 'Miss Angela' is a story 75 years in the making.

Directors Toogood and Stanton humanize Alvarez’s story so that audiences can relate.  This is a dream come true tale of a little girl with very high hopes.  In pre-revolutionary Cuba, a young Angela Alvarez announced to her family that she wanted to be a singer and songwriter but was immediately forbidden to do so by her father and grandfather.  Such endeavours were not permitted for women.   And so she was relegated to writing her songs in secret.  She married and had four children before the world turned upside down.

The film gets most interesting when it talks about Cuban History and how Fidel Castro’s propaganda affected Cubas and Alvarez.  Cuban oppression was kept from the western world and through Alvarez’s story, the truth comes out.  For Angela and her family, the revolution quickly shifted from emancipation to repression. The schools were closed and there were threats that children would be removed from their parents to be raised in Leninist-Marxist education camps; the Alvarez family decided they had to get out. But when her own visa was refused at Havana airport Angela made the agonizing decision to send her children on and catch up.  They became part of the Pedro Pan exodus where 14,500 unaccompanied children were spirited out of Cuba between 1960-62.  It took Angela four more long, frightening years to escape and reunite her family, finally settling down in the United States.  Only decades later would her music find life, culminating in a concert at the historic Avalon in Hollywood as recited at the beginning of the film, hosted by Andy Garcia, no less.

The film is an incredible journey of Alvarez overcoming adversity, defying the odds, and pursuing her dream of becoming a famous singer.

Trailer: 

PROFILE (USA/UK/Russia/Cyprus 2021) ***
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

PROFILE is an internet political thriller directed by Timur Bekmambetov.  Timur Bekmambetov is a well known Russian producer/director known for action flicks such as DAY WATCH and NIGHT WATCH as well as the flop re-make of BEN-HUR (why remake a classic?).  This internationally produced thriller is based upon the non-fiction book In The Skin of a Jihadist by Anna Erelle.

PROFILE, a 2018 internationally produced film had its world premiere at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival on February 17, 2018, in the Panorama section. It is scheduled to be released in the United States on May 14, 2021 after Pandemic complications.  This version is updated to the year 2021 in the closing credits though it is essentially a 2018 film.

PROFILE is so called as creating a profile is the first thing one does when going on a site the requires personal data.  The profile is supposed to contain accurate and true data but not one can be sure that the data in ones profile is not totally made up. 

The film follows a journalist Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane) who is assigned a story by her boss Vick (Chistine Adams).  In order to investigate the recruitment of young European women by ISIS, journalist Amy creates a new Facebook profile under the alias of Melody Nelson, a false name.  She creates a persona online of a woman who has recently converted to Islam.  Soon Amy is contacted by a very shady Bilel (Sjazad Latif), an ISIS fighter from Syria. They begin to talk to each other regularly and after some time she begins to develop real romantic feelings for him. 

Director Bekmambetov’s film is very tech-savvy.  The film is most often seen from Amy’s computer screen as she does the computer work - like chatting with her boyfriend, communicating with her boss, saving files, taking photos sometimes multitasking - which could lead to some confusion.  Her screen, for example has a pause button, but streaming the film looks as if the pause button is actually on the viewer’s screen.  If one views the film in the theatre, this confusion will not there.  It is also difficult to see so many things appearing on the screen at one time.  It is easy to multitask, but to multitask while figuring out what is happening in term of plot and character development can again be confusing and needless to say, intense.

The story can be told from the computer screen point of view or in the normal format of telling a story in the film.  Choosing the former is to director Bekmambetov’s credit, gives the film a fresh look while being more authentic and caters to an audience more computer related and tech-savvy. 

PROFILE also tackles the issue of the female movement and how women especially in the Islamic religion are often misused and mistreated.  One can see in the film how persuasive and charming Bilel can pretend to be and how a naive young girl would fall to his tricks.

PROFILE ends up an occasionally confusing and intense suspense drama told with a fresh perspective for the computer savvy.

Trailer: 

 

THE RECKONING (UK 2021) ***
Directed by Neil Marshall

The film begins with the title words indicating the film is inspired by actual events.  The events in this case is the plague in England in the 1600’s when the film is set.  It was also the time when witch hunters prevailed under the guise of being servants of God.  These unscrupulous men would target innocent women as witches, arresting them and burning them at the stake.  THE RECKONING is one of these horror stories.

The film opens with young Grace Haversack as a child  She witnesses her mother burnt at the stake, forced to confess, falsely, that she is a witch.  Now grown up, Grace (Charlotte Kirk) appears destined to undergo an identical fate.

After losing her husband to the Great Plague, Grace is unjustly accused of being a witch and placed in the custody of England’s most ruthless witch-hunter, Judge Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee, Dog Soldiers).  It is her landlord, the squire who accuses her after she resists his sexual advances after her husband’s death.   Captured by witch hunters with her house burnt down and her baby daughter forcefully taken for her, Grace is imprisoned and forced to endure physical and emotional torture while steadfastly maintaining her innocence.  At the same time, Grace must face her own inner demons as the Devil himself starts to work his way into her mind.

THE RECKONING is not an easy film to watch.  It is heartbreaking to watch an innocent mother falsely accused of witchcraft and sentenced to lashings and unbearable prison conditions.  But for Grace the worst is her baby daughter taken away from her.  All his because she refuses the sexual advances of her landlord.  For myself if I were in Grace’s shoes, I would agree to sex to save myself and daughter.  So, one must admire Grace for her bold principles.

Director Marshall (GAME OF THRONES), who co-wrote the script, puts considerable effort into getting the atmosphere  of the period accurate and the film pays off. From the wardrobe to the mud on the ground to the props and soundtrack, THE RECKONING has the feel of olde England, the time where people suffered the most.  There are solid horrid scenes like wild dogs devouring a corpse and visuals of the plague with boils and other external sores on the victims.  The attempted rape scene which is totally absorbing deserves mention.  The film could do less with Grace’s hallucinations, inserted into the film to provide cheap scares in order to have the audience jump out of their seats.  The horror of the times of the plague is scary enough without having to resort to the cliched cheap horror theatrics often found in horror flicks where things go bump in the dark.  

Director Marshall gets top marks for the creation of a solid horror period piece.  The film is an entertaining watch, moving at an efficient pace with a solid performance from Kirk as Grace.

THE RECKONING is now available on Shudder.

Trailer: 

STAND! (Canada 2019) ***

Directed by Robert Adetuyi

STAND! is a new film based on the stage musical of the same name.  I admit that I have not heard of the Canadian musical and neither have many of my friends.  So, the film arrives with a challenge to attract audiences to see this relatively unknown musical.  Director Robert Adetuyi (STOMP THE YARD and TROUBLE SLEEPING) has done a decent job.

STAND! is set 100 years ago against a backdrop of civil unrest and a violent general strike that changed Canada’s history.  The story follows an immigrant Romeo & Juliet in 1919 as they battle for love and a better life on the streets of Winnipeg, amid political and social turmoil.  Stefan (Marshall Williams from GLEE and HOW TO BUILD A BETTER BOY) and his father Mike (Gregg Henry) fled Ukraine for the New World, where they struggle to earn enough to reunite the family. Stefan is instantly smitten with the Jewish suffragette neighbour, Rebecca (Laura Wiggins), but Rebecca’s brother Moishe and Mike oppose the would-be couple. Meanwhile, soldiers returning from WWI are angry at the lack of jobs after the war and violently threaten the city’s immigrants, including Emma (Lisa Bell), a refugee from racial strife in Oklahoma.  When a movement develops for workers to leave their jobs in protest, a wealthy lawyer (the villain of the piece) pits all against each other in a dramatic and inspirational final stand.

Though set a century back many of the issues depicted in the film are still relevant today.  Racial tension and fear of losing jobs to foreigners are always relevant issues and so is the concept of evil and power.  The script by Juno-winner Danny Schur and Rick Chafe often falls into cliched territory but the actors perform their duties with such conviction that the flaws can often be overlooked.  For example, Stefan’s obstinate father Mike refuses to join in the strike and even works as a scab but knows that he will eventually end up in the protest march, which he does in the end.  For a period piece, the art direction, wardrobe and atmosphere are impressive.

STAND! can stand (pardon the pun) very much as a drama on its own without being classified as a musical.  The actors do not breakout into song or dance that often, so that the film does not really feel like a musical.  A few of the songs are also pretty good, tune and lyrics as well.   Despite being a small budget, the film looks grand.  The climatic march at the end of the film requires a march of ten thousand people.  This is quite hefty logistics.

STAND! the Juno-award-winning musical hit set against the Winnipeg General Strike by composer Danny Schur & Rick Chafe’s hit musical opens across Canada on November the 29th.  A small but effective musical, STAND! is worth a look.

Trailer: 

TRIGGER POINT (Canada 2021) **
Directed by Brad Turner

One wonders the reason this action flick from Canada bears the title TRIGGER POINT.  It could be the point in the film that triggers some important event or the firing of weapons in the film.  It is assumed the former as the film concerns an ex-agent forced out of retirement to fend for himself - forced out by a trigger point.

The ex-agent is Nicholas Shaw aka Nick played by British Columbian Barry Pepper.  Pepper is one of my favourite actors who has proven himself in many supporting roles, the one that stuck me being THREE BURIALS though he would be likely be known for his portrayals in the Coen Brothers’ TRUE GRIT and Clint Eastwood’s FLAG OF OUR FATHERS.  He gets a leading role in an TRIGGER POINT, and he turns out to be the best thing in this otherwise lacklustre action flick.  Canadian staple Colm Feore (GOOD COP BAD COP) plays Nick’s ex-boss.

The film feels like a blend between the film noir films such as the Philip Marlowe films and the current auctioneers like JOHN WICK only with less action and less film noir, thus succeeding in little of both.  The film moves too slowly as an action pic and besides having an unsatisfactory ending is filled with cliches.  A good exercise while watching the film would be to list each one together with a film reference.

For one an agency formed for the reason of assassination is one right out of the Diana Ring Oliver Reed British 1969 classic THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU directed by Basil Dearden.  Then dialogue like: “Nobody knows Quentin… that is why he is so powerful” or “The world does not work that way anymore” are lines that ring a bell having come from other films.

The skinny thin plot concerns Nick getting out of the assassination bureau called the agency in the film.  Nick is now living in isolation until called out to help his former boss, Elia.  The two go in search  of a list and to rescue Elias’ daughter.  Though the plot is thin, Michael Vicekerman’s script still manages to be a bit confusing.  Once one realizes that the plot doesn't really matter, then the action should be enjoyable.  The action segments, though not too many, are executed with some flair, reminiscent of the KINGSMEN and JON WICK movies.  A few inconsistencies can be noticed.  There is an action scene in which Nick has to fire twice to kill one of the guards.  This is puzzling as Nick is supposed to be a sharpshooter as evident in all the other scenes where he can take out a victim from afar and with only one shot.

The film is pretty serious in its delivery but includes a few notable humorous incidents, the most memorable being the one in the auto shop where Nick asks to borrow a phone and then pay for the use of a car.  This joke (not to be revealed in the review) is the only memorable thing in this sorry and disappointing action film.

Trailer: 

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (USA 2021) **
Directed by Joe Wright

British director Joe Wright is a legend in his own right having made minor masterpieces like ATONEMENT which introduced the world to actress Saoirse Ronan, then playing a 13-year old, and other female strong films like HANNA and ANNA KARENINA.  Wright’s films work best when they are set in wide open spaces like ATONEMENT where soldiers await in Dunkirk to be sent back home.  THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, also a female film with Amy Adams in the lead role of a female psychologist who herself is undergoing psychiatric treatment, takes Wright into confined spaces.  Adams plays Dr. Anna Fox who suffers from agoraphobia.  Wright does not perform that well in enclosed spaces either.

Wright does Hitchcock but rather badly.  Anna, watching the murder of a neighbour across the street through a window is a plot lifted directly out of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, REAR WINDOW with James Stewart with a broken leg stuck in his apartment witnessing a murder committed by neighbour Raymond Burr.  The one scene with Anna adjusting the lens of a camera on a tripod is an image directly taken from REAR WINDOW.  Homage, nod or pure copy?  That is up to the viewer to decide.  To Wright’s benefit, based on the history of his superior filmmaking, I would take it as an homage as there are other several familiar Hitchcockian images.  The film’s climax is on a rooftop similar to the top of the bell tower in Hitchcock’s VERTIGO.

It would be a delightful experience to watch REAR WINDOW and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW back to back.  

When Anna reports the murder of Jane Russell (Julianne Moore) to the police, they arrive at her place with husband played by Gary Oldman.  Oscar Winner Oldman is quite the screen presence, observable the instant he appears on screen.  Oldman won the Oscar for Best Actor in Joe Wright’s film on Winston Churchill, DARKEST HOUR.  The husband denies that he has killed his wife, introducing the police and Anna to his wife, now played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.  This incident is similar to the Hitchcock scene in NORTH BY NORTHWEST where Cary Grant calls the police to report kidnappers in a house only to find different people residing there.

For a film with a simple plot, the script makes the story unnecessarily complicated.  There is no real need to create such a desperate character (overkill) as Anna suffering multiple problems like mental psychiatric distress, a past car accident, over drinking, pill-popping, a separation, agoraphobia and a weird tenant among others. Adams seems lost with too many issues to handle.  Her own therapy is to play chess with non-humans and to spy at her neighbours.

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW was slated to open with an early 2019 release in the theatres but due to Pandemic and test audiences poor reactions, the film has been now slotted straight for streaming.  It opens on Netflix on Friday May the 14th.  THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is so terribly derivative filled with over-the-top dialogue that it makes a hilarious viewing.

Trailer:  

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