Movie Review ~ Profile

The Facts:

Synopsis: An undercover British journalist infiltrates the online propaganda channels of the so-called Islamic State, only to be sucked in by her recruiter.

Stars: Valene Kane, Shazad Latif, Christine Adams, Amir Rahimzadeh, Morgan Watkins

Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Above all else, I’m grateful that Profile has come along now because it forced me to find the actual word to describe the unique way it is presented to viewers.  That would be Screenlife.  In a nutshell, Screenlife is the format of a movie (or TV show) where everything you see happens on a “screen”.  That could be a computer, iPad, iPhone, or other electronic devices that can be displayed across one ‘desktop’.   So, whatever you are watching it on becomes the entire “world” of the piece.  The first movie I can remember seeing this in was 2014’s Unfriended and what I assumed would be a tiresome gimmick wound up being the baseline for a solid thriller, made even scarier if you sat close enough in a theater so the screen took up your entire field of vision.  I repeated the same experience with the far underappreciated Searching from 2018 and 2020’s Host (filmed mid-pandemic) was a clever mash-up of haunted Zoom-meeting and Screenlife terror.

Now along comes Profile and again I was hesitant to embrace this schtick again, wondering how far the concept could be taken before it became stale.  Shot in nine days back in 2018 and appearing in several festivals in the same year, it’s admittedly odd that it’s taken so long for Profile to come out.  By now, it almost feels like a period piece because so much of the conflict described has changed and the recruitment procedures have gone further underground.  Would there be room for another Screenlife entry that didn’t have a supernatural angle but still dealt with horror of a more real-world kind?  More importantly, is this the kind of film an audience just getting back to movie theaters would want to line up for a ticket to?

Based on French journalist Anna Érelle’s non-fiction book In the Skin of a Jihadist: Inside Islamic State’s Recruitment Networks, Profile sticks close to Érelle’s account of how she pretended online to be a teenager who recently converted to Islam, creating fake Facebook profiles in an attempt to lure members of ISIS to her.  All of this began as a story for a news magazine about a teenager from Belgium that went missing and was thought to have flown to Syria to join ISIS after being recruited and then sold to sex traffickers.  Eventually connecting with a man in Syria, Érelle (a pseudonym, by the way) quickly found herself in over her head and while she escaped any imminent danger, a bounty was put on her life and she must live in anonymity for fear of repercussions for her reporting.  Scary stuff.

The screenwriters of Profile do some decent work fictionalizing the story to alter things just enough, not only to separate their story from Érelle’s but also to amp up the tension that will add to the experience.  Instead of Anna we have Amy (Valene Kane, Victor Frankenstein) a UK journalist freelancing for The Guardian who wants to do a story about ISIS recruitment of British females. She’s finally convinced her wary boss (Christine Adams, Batman Begins) to let her pose as a teenager on Facebook where a number of girls find the men that will bring them over to Syria with promises of marriage and prosperity.  Armed with a new identity, Melody Nelson, and continuing to read up on Islamic culture, Amy goes fishing in a lake of darkness and catches a whopper that she isn’t prepared for.

Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazad Latif, The Commuter) shows interest right away and before long the two of them are Skyping (with a Muslim co-worker of Amy’s standing by for guidance) and getting to know one another.  Amy, quick on the keyboard, is able to divert Bilel’s attention when he asks questions she isn’t prepared for or wants to see her personal screen filled with “Amy” folders and pictures of her and her boyfriend.  As the conversations continue, they grow more personal and lines get blurred, calling into question the ethos of journalistic integrity and what Amy is willing to do for her story.  Each new piece of information from Bilel could be another story she can write so why not get everything she can? Is she willing to go the distance (literally) to gain that knowledge?

For a time, this back and forth feels like a vice grip that director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is turning tighter and tighter, daring the audience to stay with Amy’s story as she falls deeper into a pit of her own making.  Quick glimpses of ISIS recruitment videos (including some well-known brutal beheading videos that stop short of anything major) are meant to rattle and achieve their goal quickly and then ease off.  This technique works on a nice clip to a certain point until we see Amy making one too many errant mistakes, both as a person and a professional journalist.  Plenty of characters in horror movies act like dingbats and we write them off as expendable sacks of blood but there’s something different about this reality-based approach that doesn’t allow us to afford Amy that same grace.  She should know better, and it becomes a question of her overall intelligence after a while. 

At first, I thought it was perhaps due to Kane’s waif-ish presence that feels so flimsy you believe a strong cough might send her shooting backward through a window.  It might play well as Melody when pretending to be subservient for Bilel but it’s there as Amy, too.  Even the usually obnoxious millennials in Unfriended and its solid sequel (which just so happen to be produced by Bekmambetov) come off as more grounded than Amy.  That also stymies the relationship being built with Latif’s character who at times feels like the most appealing person in the entire film.  Apparently unburdened by the approach to the filmmaking, Latif is often required to be in motion when speaking but he never drops his character and stays laser focused.  It’s an intense performance that the movie benefits immensely from.

Of all the Screenlife films so far, Profile is the least engaging.  Part of that is the run time which in no way needs to be 105 minutes and another factor is that its entire plot feels ever-so-slightly like old news.  The energy level can’t help but run low after a time and with less characters to juggle, there’s fewer people to care about or be interested in.  I wouldn’t say it’s something to skip because if you ever watch how these films are made you can appreciate the work that goes into it and I do think it hits each of its beats when and how it is supposed to. It just doesn’t hit them with as much clarity as it could have. 

Movie Review ~ The Djinn

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mute boy is trapped in his apartment with a sinister monster when he makes a wish to fulfill his heart’s greatest desire.

Stars: Ezra Dewey, Rob Brownstein, Tevy Poe, John Erickson, Donald Pitts, Jilbert Daniel

Director: David Charbonier & Justin Powell

Rated: R

Running Length: 82 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  I’ll level with you.  There have been nights when I’ve been woken up by a noise and I’m convinced there is some sort of supernatural creature in my house.  Forget excusing it away as a creaky board or a moaning pipe, and don’t even think of chalking it up to the dozens of scary films I’ve watched in the span of a few months.  No, it’s definitely something terrifying that’s come to prey upon me and like a good would-be victim I silently get out of bed, grab the nearest object I can use as a weapon (often a book to hurl) and start to slowly explore every nook and crook of my dwelling until I’m convinced everything is safe and secure.  After climbing back into bed and before drifting off to sleep there have been times I’ll think, “Oh man, I’m so glad no one was filming me foolishly sneaking around my own house.”

That’s the story that kept following me around during the 82 long minutes I spent trapped into the confines of The Djinn, a plodding horror film that features a young mute boy who does exactly what I just described.  Only in a much smaller space.  For a lot longer.  Don’t get me wrong, unlike my nighttime adventures that come up with nothing to report, the youngster that carries the entire film on his constantly terrified shoulders is rewarded for his efforts with several nasty scares that are alarming mostly for the screeching music or blaring sound effect that accompanies their appearance.  That might be enough to satiate viewers that feed off of these perfunctory jolts, though around the sixty-minute mark they began to simply serve as unappreciated wake-up alarms for me just as I was about to doze off.

Nighttime radio host Michael Jacobs (Rob Brownstein, Argo) and his silent son Dylan (Ezra Dewey) have moved into a new apartment not long after a tragedy took their wife and mother away.  Though he still sees his mother Michelle (Tevy Poe) in haunting flashbacks, without a voice to reach out in his dreams, Dylan can’t connect with her to obtain any sense of closure.  With dad working an overnight double, Dylan continues to unpack and discovers items left by the previous tenant, including a book with information on spells and, more specifically, the Wish of Desire.  Of course, there are warnings tied to the spell and caveats as to how the wish is actually granted, but the pre-teen can’t resist performing a ritual (in American Sign Language, a clever touch) to ask for his voice back. 

At first, it appears the rite has failed, and Dylan goes on with his evening dejected but lying in bed later he has one of those moments I mentioned in the beginning.  A strange noise rouses him and when he goes to seek out its source the book of spells reveals its true intentions, billowing out a black smoke that harbors The Djinn, a figure from Arabic folklore that acts a type of genie but not one that wants to see the person that rubbed the lamp get healthy, wealthy, and wise.  No, this is an evil power that Dylan is now trapped in the tiny apartment with and must outmaneuver for the next hour.  If he can avoid being caught by The Djinn and perform the end of the ritual, his wish will be granted.  As The Djinn attempts to trick him by taking on different forms and curtailing his escape plans, Dylan tries to outwit an unmatched foe and fight for his soul as the time ticks away.

Writer/directors David Charbonier & Justin Powell have set their film in 1989 for some odd reason, perhaps it was to remove the advances in technology or excuse some of the drab furnishings of the seriously grandmumsy apartment the Jacobs family now calls home.  Though it gives credence to a pulsating score of synths and original music from composter Matthew James, it becomes one of several details that feel like a retro grasp to achieve purpose instead of necessity.  Even with a handful of admittedly frightening visuals punctuated by skin-crawling creepies that are borrowed almost totally from other films (Insidious comes to mind), The Djinn works overtime to maintain its mood but it’s like trying to keep a balloon at bay with just your pinky. 

It takes a strong actor to hold our attention for a long while and while Dewey isn’t bad by any stretch, he runs into trouble with overcompensating for a lack of a speaking voice by turning up the volume on everything else.  The eyes get big, the facial expressions elongate wider, the silent scream goes on for longer than necessary. It’s all just a little over the top and spills into silly rather than scary.  There’s also a total lack of any kind of bond between father and son which becomes an important piece of the puzzle – hard to accomplish on these short shoots, I know, but the absence of any kind of warmth is off-putting.

Last summer, IFC Midnight kicked off a great run right around this time with their release of The Wretched, becoming one of the first studios to find their groove in the madness around the pandemic.  I can see where their acquisition of The Djinn was done with similar thoughts in mind for a tiered release, but it falls far below the high bar they’ve set over the past twelve months.  There have been numerous movies made about Djinns or Djinn-esque set-ups (let’s not forget the heinous Wish Upon) and few have found the path to popularity.  Don’t count on this lugubrious effort to change that.

Movie Review ~ High Ground

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: In a bid to save the last of his family, a young Aboriginal man, teams up with an ex-soldier to track down the most dangerous warrior in the Territory, his uncle. 

Stars:  Simon Baker, Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Callan Mulvey, Caren Pistorius, Jack Thompson, Witiyana Marika, Aaron Pedersen, Ryan Corr, Esmerelda Marimowa

Director: Stephen Maxwell Johnson 

Rated: NR 

Running Length: 104 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7/10) 

Review: Part of the perks of exposure to so many films is that you are often afforded the opportunity to see a movie that might not have otherwise caught your attention.  Maybe it’s from a fledgling studio that happened to land the right PR firm who represents the perfect studio, or it could be the star is someone you’ve liked before in other work and are curious to see if they can deliver again.  More often than not, simply the premise is enough to draw you in, suggesting a film offering an experience that will be different than what you’d normally encounter.  You can toss the dice and lose, like I did recently with the muddy and ruddy dialogue free pig doc Gunda or you might be a high roller and find a diamond in the rough title like High Ground.

Equal parts western (by way of the Outback in the 1930’s), revenge thriller, and history lesson, High Ground is based on true events that took place during a bleak period in Australia’s history wherein the government brutally strong-armed their colonization the indigenous Aboriginal people.  It’s through one of these real-life stories that director Stephen Maxwell Johnson and screenwriter Chris Anastassiades take their cues, largely based on years of information they gathered from Aboriginal elders.  Though white, the men have sought (and evidently received) approval from the heads within the native population to tell the story from the Aboriginal point of view.  Along with cultural consultant Witiyana Marika, a respected voice from the Yolngu community in the Northern Territory, High Ground is the fruit of a lengthy labor of love.

Beginning with a prologue that introduces young Gutjuk (Guruwuk Mununggurr) and his tribe, the gentle opening features glorious images of an untouched landscape and the people that called it home.  Headed up by Dharrpa (Marika), members of his tribe include Gutjuk’s father and uncle both of whom are feeling responsible for educating the young boy in the ways of contributing to his community.  Tranquility is shortlived, however, when a routine security check-in by police sent by the government turns into a massacre that decimates most of the tribe, including Gutjuk’s father. 

One member of the police that didn’t participate in this bloodshed is Travis (Simon Baker, The Devil Wears Prada) a man that seems to have his morals about him.  Actively defending Dharrpa’s tribe by shooting back at his own squad, Travis is ostracized for his actions while Gutjuk is taken in by a weak-willed missionary also present at the attack and his kindly sister Claire (Caren Pistorius, Mortal Engines).  Flash forward twelve years and Gutjuk is a young man (played by Jacob Junior Nayinggul) still living with Claire in a Christian mission outpost on the edge of colonized land.  A wave of attacks on the residents of land formerly occupied by the native Aboriginal people initiated by Baywarra (Sean Mununggurr), Dharrpa’s son, is sending fear through the dry country and a grizzled police chief (Jack Thompson, The Great Gatsby) calls in an old friend, Travis, to stop the incendiary force before it is too late.

When Travis arrives at the mission, he recognizes the boy he saved all those years ago and remembers the connection he has to Dharrpa and, by proxy, Baywarra.  Using Gutjuk’s skills as a tracker to lead him to his target, Travis is once again placed in a position of choosing between his own ethics and the law of the land.  Unbeknownst to Travis and fearing such a quandary of conscience in his hunter for hire, the police chief sends another two men to trail Travis and Gutjuk as a safety precaution.  Led by Travis’ best frenemy Eddy (Callan Mulvey, Shadow in the Cloud) the back-up duo becomes yet another of the harsh elements for Travis and Gutjuk to face as they make their way back to the location where they first met a decade earlier where a reckoning is set to occur.

To their extreme credit, Johnson and Anastassiades don’t sugarcoat the violence inflicted on the indigenous people during this unfathomable time.  I think filmmakers not intimately acquainted with the people that were affected by and have felt the generation repercussions of the events that transpired like what High Ground depicts would have shied away from showing some of the atrocities.  If anything, Johnson lingers on the bloody aftermath of death and innocent lives being lost.  It’s not exploitative but rather eye-opening.  That the film can slip in so many of the horrifying historical details, many of which viewers will likely not be aware of to their full extent, while maintaining audience engagement is rather astounding.

The casting of real tribespeople and many newcomers also aids in an authenticity that never could have been achieved if High Ground was made anywhere but on the land it depicts.  Even if not the most proficient of actors from a technical standpoint, it’s hard to deny the power of the performances.  Give me an actor like Esmerelda Marimowa (as Gulwirri, one of the few females in the film but delivering some of the most unforgettable scenes) over most of the Supporting Actress nominees at the Independent Spirit Awards this year.  All the Bad White Men in the movie are appropriately Bad and White but Thompson is especially good at being a real racist devil.  I’ve always liked Baker and he’s very good in the movie, as is Pistorius (thankfully free from Unhinged, that horrifying Russell Crowe movie I’d just as soon forget) but both are millimeters from White Savior territory, so much so that I feel even praising their roles too much would push them over the edge.  Besides, it’s Navinggul’s movie to walk away with, which he does with ease.  An actor that has a mystery to him, he’s able to invite you to inch forward in your seat and be far more interested in what he’s doing than anyone else on screen.  It’s perfect for the character and signals a true star in the making.

Beautiful cinematography and a sparse soundtrack that is primarily made up of ambient sound compliment the overall tone Johnson was going for with High Ground.  I had no idea what to expect when heading in (I didn’t watch the preview and I’d suggest you don’t either) so had the good fortune of watching with no preconceived notions of what High Ground should be.  It plateaus near the ¾ mark and doesn’t quite dislodge itself in either direction before the end but that’s no matter, the height it has reached is good enough to easily recommend you give this kangaroo western a shot.  You may learn something.