Movie Review ~ High Ground


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 ~ Unhinged

The Facts

Synopsis: After a confrontation with an unstable man at an intersection, a woman becomes the target of his rage.

Stars: Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Gabriel Bateman, Jimmi Simpson, Austin P. McKenzie

Director: Derrick Borte

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  They tried, bless their money grubbing hearts, but they tried.  Studios that had big summer plans with franchise films set to open since the beginning of April have desperately adjusted their schedules to see if their movies could possibly debut and bring in some dough.  Disney kept pushing their live-action Mulan back before finally announcing it would debut in most countries on their streaming service for a $30 rental fee, Universal moved both their newest Fast and Furious flick and October’s Halloween sequel to 2021, and hard-nosed Warner Brothers continues to deny science and nudged Christopher Nolan’s Tenet back a week at a time before picking a date in September and (as of now) sticking with it.

Who could have ever predicted that the first new film arriving in theaters to welcome back brave audiences would be Unhinged from Solstice Studios, a fledgling company soldiering forward with its initial release in a country still taking stock of a massive virus crisis?  And what a welcome back it is.  Movie-goers that have been busying themselves on repeated viewings of nostalgic classics, binging on television shows, and trying out the latest offering from the well-stocked on demand sector are in for a rude howdy-do courtesy of Russell Crowe’s garish road-rage thriller.  It’s tense as all get-out and slick as can be but it’s also so nasty and mean-spirited you’ll wish you had watched it home so you can shower after to wash its palpable grime off after.

A grim prologue finds Crowe’s Tom Cooper already hopping over the line of bad judgment, leading into a current events credits sequence that might just send you hunting for your last Xanax.  Before we see Tom again, we’re introduced to Rachel Hunter (Caren Pistorius, Mortal Engines) a young mother going through a divorce and teetering on the edge of barely getting by.  Her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman, 2019’s Child’s Play) and live-in brother Fred (Austin P. McKenzie) are all too happy to point out her shortcomings but not so into helping out with solutions to her crumbling business or relationship.  Only her lawyer friend Andy (Jimmi Simpson, White House Down) seems to be actively looking out for her best interest.  Everyone else wants something from her or needs her to make good on promises she can’t always keep.

She’s near the end of a short fuse when she finds herself behind a truck at an intersection while already running late to drop her son off at school.  When the truck doesn’t move at the green light she lays on her horn once…then twice…then swerves around only to find herself in bumper to bumper traffic going the other direction, more than enough opportunity for the truck (and the man within) to catch up with her.  Re-enter, you guessed it, Tom Cooper who demands an apology which Rachel isn’t eager to give.  When strained niceties turn to aggressive threats, Rachel finds herself and her loved ones at the epicenter of Cooper’s dangerous psychotic rage.

What’s good about a film like Unhinged is that it perks up someone like me who has been missing those fun B-movie thrillers of the 90s.  After all, it wouldn’t be very sporting of me to drone on in my reviews about the death knell of those mid-budgeted suspense yarns and then kick to the curb the literal first one out of the gate when theaters have reopened.  All the same, there’s such an inherent meanness to Carl Ellsworth’s original screenplay that I have to say what started off as a nail-biting tale fueled by impending dread gives way to something far less well-intentioned.  When Cooper becomes an unstoppable monster hell bent on destroying Rachel’s life with his bare bloody hands in the most grievous ways possible, Unhinged becomes an upsetting and increasingly uncomfortable watch.  Is this supposed to be the kind of entertainment we have been clamoring for?

It would be easy to argue that the violence Cooper inflicts is no less gratuitous than your standard Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers sequel but there’s a clear distinction between those fantasy world characters and this film that’s set squarely in our realistic modern times.  It’s as if Ellsworth’s created a cypher for some kind of anger he feels toward society and uses it as a battering ram against anything that gets in the way.  Countless innocent lives are lost in the film, some for no other reason than they may be annoying in a way our judgmental culture has deemed them to be.  You also can’t skirt the fact that while Cooper is indeed a psychopath, Rachel is given multiple opportunities at the outset to put a pin in their traffic scuffle but refuses to do so…which propels Cooper to pounce on his murder quest.

It almost feels too easy to say Crowe (The Water Diviner) is perfectly cast in the role of an off-his-rocker nutjob but…he is.  Wearing a faux fat belly so fake looking I swear I saw the square edges when he turned from side to side, Crowe plays the role like a white privileged slob of an American.  I’m shocked he didn’t throw a Trump/Pence bumper sticker on the truck to complete the picture, but you can’t alienate your audience in the south or date yourself too much, ya know?  Anyway, Crowe is menacing enough and blusters his way through the 90-minute movie with an apt presence but little in the way of any character coloring.  Some blanks are filled in, but Cooper is mostly a mystery…which is probably the point.  As the object of his abject hate, Pistorius makes the most out of a role written to be a train wreck at the beginning and a full-on ten-car pile-up by the end.  At some point, you start to think her character must not know how to dial 911 because it takes her forever to make that call.  The rest of the cast is barely worth mentioning, though I’d like to state for the record Bateman looks and acts like another younger brother to Pistorius rather than her son.

I’ll be quite interested to see how audiences respond to Unhinged in this first weekend of screenings back and also how theaters in turn deal with new crowds at their theaters.  If there’s one thing to be thankful for, it’s that Unhinged is being marketed in a way that should keep families staying home and avoiding the temptation to haul young children out to see this terror-filled picture.  With this pandemic still an active concern, it’s not worth the risk of venturing into the theaters yet and Unhinged is absolutely not the one to take the chance on it with.

Movie Review ~ Gloria Bell


The Facts

Synopsis: A free-spirited woman in her 50s seeks out love at L.A. dance clubs.

Stars: Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Caren Pistorius, Holland Taylor, Michael Cera, Sean Astin, Alanna Ubach, Brad Garrett, Rita Wilson, Jeanne Tripplehorn

Director: Sebastián Lelio

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I already have a conflicted relationship with remakes in general and the internal battle I wage with English language remakes of foreign films is even greater. If a film is so revered in its native language why can’t it exist on its own merits and let audiences discover the film on their own terms in their own time? Must it always be necessary to, let’s face it, pander to the lazies that can’t be bothered to put on their reading glasses? It frustrates me mostly because rarely are these U.S. remakes in the same league as their foreign counterparts so the lasting impression most audiences have are watered down versions of what were dynamic originals.

An added complexity to the American remake is when foreign directors adapt their own film for the English language. This is not a new concept. George Sluzier remade his dynamite 1988 thriller Spoorloos in 1993 as The Vanishing and turned it into a tepid vehicle for Jeff Bridges. Michael Haneke’s 1997 Funny Games made it’s remake debut on our shores in 2007. In 2002 Takashi Shimizu released Ju-on: The Grudge two years before he would direct an English language remake that is getting yet another remake in 2020.

The latest auteur circling back to his own work is Sebastián Lelio, the Oscar-winning director of 2017’s Best Foreign Film A Fantastic Woman. Based on his surprise 2013 hit Gloria, Gloria Bell is one of those rare remakes that allows both films to stand on their own without either suffering by comparison. Each may have the same story to tell and center on a woman of a certain age not often well represented in mainstream cinema but Lelio and star Julianne Moore bring a profound depth and realism to the character and her adventures. This helps the movie out of the remake shadow and into it’s own vibrant light.

Fiftyish divorcee Gloria Bell (Moore, Still Alice) lives in Los Angeles and is a manager at an insurance company by day and a dance club denizen by night. Spending her drive to and from work singing along to hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s, Gloria has two children she has a typical relationship with and a few good friends she can confide in. She’s living her life…but maybe not her best life. Her nights on the dance floor are a way for her to go into her own world and lose herself and it’s there she catches the eye of Arnold (John Turturro, Fading Gigolo) another divorcee with his own baggage that quickly gets laid at her feet. As her relationship with Arnold starts to take off and throws her some unexpected curveballs, Gloria takes stock of where she finds herself and starts to enact more control of her life than ever before.

The ups and downs of the relationship between Gloria and Arnold won’t be unfamiliar to most of us but the way things play out may be. A great scene involving Arnold being introduced to Gloria’s adult children (Michael Cera, This is the End and Caren Pistorius, Mortal Engines) and her ex-husband and his new wife (Brad Garrett, Christopher Robin and Jeanne Tripplehorn, Basic Instinct) leads to some fairly awkward and embarrassing developments. It all culminates in one downright infuriating deal breaker that’s not just forgiven (though, admittedly, not easily) but actually repeated later on in the film.

The beauty in Lelio’s film and Moore’s performance is that much of the journey Gloria goes on doesn’t come in what we hear but in what we see. It’s how we see Moore and Turturro interact that informs where they are in their relationship, it’s how Moore carries herself after suffering a set-back before squaring her shoulders that tells us how quickly she bounces back from disappointment. There’s so much happening internally that it could be easy for the movie to feel small but it’s largely filled with truly lovely moments.  It also helps that I genuinely had no idea where the movie was headed and where things would wind up for Gloria.  There was no telegraphed path to conclusion or hints at what the next turn would be — such is life.

Aided by a strong soundtrack of popular tunes not to mention an intriguing score from Matthew Herbert, the film gets the overbaked sunniness of Los Angeles completely right and always places our leading lady in locations that feel like the real world. She lives in the style of apartment and drives the type of car someone with her job would and Moore, as usual, totally loses herself in the role. Though the film does have some melancholy moments laced throughout it ends with a hopeful bang (and, of course, on the dancefloor) as Moore takes us through a whole range of emotions as Laura Branigan’s Gloria plays in the background.  It’s easy to see why many people are highlighting this last scene as a standout but it’s just one of many moments in the film that showcases the star becoming one with the material/character.  Another winning performance from Moore and a worthwhile film to see.