Movie Review ~ Till Death

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Emma is left handcuffed to her dead husband as part of a sickening revenge plot and must survive two hired killers on their way to finish the job.

Stars: Megan Fox, Eoin Macken, Aml Ameen, Callan Mulvey, Jack Roth

Director: S.K. Dale

Rated: NR

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Let’s just face the facts about something. It’s going to be hard for us to admit it collectively so I can go ahead and speak for the group: we all missed the boat big time on Megan Fox and gave her a raw deal back in the Transformers days.  Don’t bother to argue or pretend you don’t agree.  Don’t point to the Transformers sequel and go “But, look!”  Don’t hold up your used copy of Jonah Hex with it’s not quite torn off Blockbuster label and for goodness sake please don’t even start with Jennifer’s Body.  If you are still claiming Jennifer’s Body is a bad movie you need to go back and watch it again and then come back and apologize. There is no space for Jennifer’s Body deniers here.

What I’m trying to say is that Fox achieved a certain amount of fame for something other than her acting and that somehow rendered her a bad actress, which I just don’t think she is.  Now, what I do think is that she’s an actress that has to be in the right movie to be successful and Till Death is her bread and butter.  The Bulgaria-filmed thriller has a dynamite concept, one of those situations you read on paper and think it could never be stretched to a feature length but which, miraculously, manages to work beautifully as a zesty little bit of bloody fun which keeps you alert and on your toes.

Emma (Fox, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) is not in the happiest of marriages, as evidenced by her ongoing affair with an employee (Aml Ameen, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) at her husband Mark’s office.  While she recently ended her relationship with Tom, her thoughts continue to drift to him even as she’s out with Mark (Eoin Macken) for an uncharacteristically romantic evening.  Whisking her away to their secluded lake house, Mark has the luxuriously furnished dwelling all set-up for a seductive evening and appears ready to recommit to their union.  With her affair over and her once aloof spouse now showing renewed interest, Emma feels as if this may be a positive step in reclaiming her life.  Then she falls asleep.

When Emma wakes up, she’s handcuffed to Mark who has a gun in his other hand.  Before she knows it, he’s killed himself and she’s left all alone tethered to her dead mate.  Then things get weirder.  Not only has Mark committed suicide in front of her, but everything in the furnished house has disappeared overnight.  Anything she could use to free herself or call for help has vanished.  Realizing she’s been set-up, Emma has to use considerable strength to move about the house and find a way to literally get rid of her dead weight of a husband.  What she doesn’t realize is that Mark has also connected with someone from Emma’s past, a stalker (Callan Mulvey, Shadow in the Cloud) who attacked her and was sent to prison but was recently released.  And he’s on his way over.

Fans of talking to the screen will have a field day with Fox and Till Death because the numerous predicaments screenwriter Jason Carvey puts Emma into are enough to drive you bonkers.  One moment, you’re cheering her on for her ingenuity and the next you’re screaming at her for blowing her cover by knocking something over.  Director S.K. Dale works within these tight constraints of the house and the small surrounding area, never letting things get too claustrophobic while always reminding you just how alone Emma is without any form of help coming to save her.  Several well-done sequences of near misses are nicely thought out and, even better, believably executed.  It never looks like Fox is just dragging a cloth dummy around after her, either.  The poor guy playing her husband really takes a beating as the corpse…it’s like a horror version of Weekend at Bernie’s.

Stylish thrillers with strong female leads are the types of films that Fox should make more of and recently she’s been headlining a number of titles in this genre, which suit me just fine.  Right now, I have another film in my queue to watch she’s co-starring in with Bruce Willis that’s due out in a few weeks so the jury’s out if that will produce the same rewarding fruit that Till Death found.  For now, it’s worth it to take note of how this well-done feature uses its star to draw the suspense higher and maintain it through to the very end.

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.

Movie Review ~ Shadow in the Cloud

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A WWII pilot traveling with top secret documents on a B-17 Flying Fortress encounters an evil presence on board the flight.

Stars: Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Beulah Koale, Taylor John Smith, Callan Mulvey, Benedict Wall, Joe Witkowski, Byron Coll, Liam Legge, Asher Bridle

Director: Roseanne Liang

Rated: R

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I think we’ve talked before about my not-so-secret aversion to flying but by very public (at least on this blog, anyway) love of all things involving movies and planes.  It’s a strange dichotomy, I know, and it must be the universe’s way of trying to cure my fear through a medium I enjoy…but I’m so stubborn that my white-knuckle nature when flying the friendly skies just can’t be fixed.  I’m also not talking about enjoying your standard airplane disaster movies like 1970’s Airport or it’s numerous silly sequels but more along the lines of the truly scary ones that present throat-clutching scenarios that elicit yelps and have been the cause for many a canceled transatlantic flight.

One of my favorite examples is Nightmare at 20,000 Feet which is actually part of a larger anthology film, 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie.  (Yes, I know it was originally from a 1963 episode of the original TV series.)  I’ve yet to discuss that movie at length as part of my 31 Days to Scare and still might so won’t say much more about it, but it’s a dandy of a freaky fifteen minutes.  Clearly, someone else has an affinity for it as well because there’s a new film out that takes a page or two (or three) from that story and uses it as an inspiration for a larger period piece that’s an eventful, if completely ludicrous adrenaline rush of a ride.  As one of the last movies to come across my desk in 2020, the overly eager Shadow in the Cloud could have been the last gasp of a year that didn’t know when to quit but it manages to eek by on its suspense and “did they just do that?’ far-fetched action sequences.

In the throes of World War II, a highly classified package needs transportation out of an army base in Auckland, New Zealand and Air Force Capt. Maude Garrett shows up to the all-male crew of The Fool’s Errand, a B-29 bomber charting a course to Samoan Islands with papers granting her a seat.  Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz, Greta) is used to the male bravado instantly on display to both intimidate and (improbably) entice her but doesn’t let it distract her from the job she’s been tasked with.  With the only seat available in the gun turret below the main cabin, her cargo must remain above her guarded by a kind crew member (Taylor John Smith, Insidious: Chapter 3) while she is in the cramped space below.

As the plane takes off, the Brit must contend with the close quarters of her seating arrangement, the “locker room talk” of the crew she hears over the radio, a small crack in the glass that separates her from the clouds below, the threat of enemy planes engaging for attack, and another danger that has also hitched a ride on The Fool’s Errand.  If you haven’t yet watched the trailer for Shadow in the Cloud, I’d advise against it as it gives away sadly too much of the surprises the hectic flight has in store, including a disappointing amount of the very end of the movie.  No, it’s best to go into the movie as blind as possible because that’s how you’ll wring maximum enjoyment out of the wild ride writer/director Roseanne Liang has in store for anyone brave enough to withstand takeoff.

Working from a script originally written by the problematic Max Landis (click here for more details), the producers have gone to great lengths to separate themselves from that predatory persona.  I hope that his name still lingering as a writer for legal reasons doesn’t deter people from seeing Shadow in the Cloud because this is largely a fun film with its eye squarely on keeping you at attention, ready at a moment’s notice for things to change course.  With the first 45 minutes largely a solo endeavor for Moretz to command the screen (a challenge she meets nicely, by the way) with growing suspense, Liang pivots the movie to a full-scale action/horror mash-up when things get hairy.  At a trim 83 minutes, there’s not a lot of breathing room or time to acclimate yourself so you have to keep up with the rapidly changing developments as they fly by.

At times in the first half of the movie I found myself closing my eyes and wondering what this would sound like as a podcast.  With only Moretz seen onscreen and everyone else from the crew heard on radio, Liang relies on a good sound design and well-done CGI effects to convincingly isolate her young star in the underbelly of a plane where she’s exposed in a glass dome for everyone to see.  When she gets a glimpse of something out of the ordinary and can’t do anything about it, the tension meter starts to rise exponentially and Liang keeps her thumb on our pressure points straight through to the finale.  Aside from Moretz’s strong performance, the rest of the cast is a bit of a blur of accents and standard military male archetypes; I mean, it took me forever to even notice Love Simon’s Nick Robinson has a small part as another gunner in the unit.

If the film loses you during it’s juggernaut of a final twenty minutes when the action takes over and the stunt work blends with some at-times unconvincing CGI, I think you may be the wrong audience for the film.  I found these sequences to be most audacious and rapscallion, with Liang providing escapist fun for female audience members first and not caring about paying service to the fanboys out there that may decry some of the more non-period implausibility’s.  Like Patty Jenkins did with expectations of Wonder Woman and its (better than you’ve heard) sequel, Liang knows how to make a “female action film” without gender-ing it to death.

I found Shadow in the Cloud to be so enjoyable and mostly unpredictable in the way it played out.  Maybe experienced travelers will foresee some of the final details and small twists that are interspersed in the film throughout, but I appreciated the way the movie introduces some rather big game changers and then just moves on without lingering in the reveal, pleased with its cleverness.  It has a job to do and doesn’t have time to waste basking in any rug pulls.  It’s brawny but not quite brainy and gets some good jolts in along the way.  You can hardly ask for more in a film of this type.  Very worth the travel time.

The Silver Bullet ~ 300: Rise of an Empire

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Synopsis: The Greek general Themistocles battles an invading army of Persians under the mortal-turned-god, Xerxes.

Release Date:  March 7, 2014

Thoughts: It’s hard to believe, but this sequel is arriving a full 7 years after the original surprise blockbuster was released.  I found the first film a hyper-surreal thrill ride filled with ample amounts of blood and bared flesh and in the years since the movie has inspired countless inferior knockoffs and quite a few new ab workouts for those wanting to get into Spartan shape.  Director Zack Snyder was busy with Man of Steel so the directing duties went to Noam Murro…a relatively green director helming only his second feature film.  Even with Snyder staying on as producer and screenwriter, it remains to be seen if the unproven Murro can really sail this ship.  Bolstered by some interesting female leads in the form of Eva Green (Cracks, Dark Shadows) and Lena Headey (The Purge), this sequel is highly anticipated and should be a nice blockbuster of 2014.