The Screen Critic: A controversial thriller, a foul-mouthed dog comedy and another Depp/Heard doco

Aug 25, 2023
Jim Caviezel in Sound of Freedom (Angel Studios); Elliott Crosset Hove in Godland (Janus Films); Johnny Depp in Depp v. Heard (Netflix). Source: Supplied.

Never mind Barbie, Oppenheimer, Avatar 2, Mission Impossible 7 or The Mario Bros. Movie. When the final tally is done, Sound of Freedom will emerge as the year’s most resounding hit – and its most unlikely.

At last count, the independent film has taken $US178 million (that’s $276m Australian) since its release across America on 4 July.

That might not seem like much compared to the films in the billion-dollar club, yet what makes the success of Sound of Freedom so remarkable is that it was made way back in 2018 for a paltry $14.5m – peanuts given how the average cost of a Hollywood film today is around $80m.

On top of that, the film was released with virtually no publicity or media support against blockbusters with eye-watering marketing spends: $150m for Barbie; $140m for Indiana Jones 5; $100m for M:I 7; $200m for Avatar 2.

Yet old-fashioned word-of-mouth has made Sound of Freedom the most talked about hit film of the year.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Inspired by true events, Sound of Freedom is a solid, emotionally charged, well-directed thriller about Homeland Security agent Tim Ballard (Jim Caviezel) who specialises in pursuing pedophiles and child pornographers. Dissatisfied over how his many arrests don’t actually have any impact on the rampant sex- trafficking of children beyond the US he goes on a mission to find the sister of a boy he has rescued.

This involves him and his shady collaborator Vampiro (Bill Camp) infiltrating the underworld to arrange sting operations by posing as pedophiles themselves.

It’s not an easy assignment and some of the scenes where Ballard is casually dealing with ghastly child sex operators can be hard to watch. While being a tad too long, director Alejandro Monteverde builds to a tense finale as Ballard poses as a health worker to get in the midst of a notorious sex trafficker and his heavily armed cadres.

Ballard and Vampiro are motivated by faith, but Sound of Freedom unfurls as a straight, morally grounded thriller rather than as an overtly “faith-driven” film, with Caviezel (best-known for playing the title character in The Passion of the Christ) putting in a sterling central performance.

Unsurprisingly, a big part of the film’s appeal has been credited to the Christianity of its main characters and the righteousness of Ballard’s crusade – though that would have counted for nil had the film been anything other than a ripping yarn. Based on the work of anti-human trafficking activist Tim Ballard, the film has drawn some low-level controversy for allegedly giving support to the Qanon conspiracy theory group. How ridiculous.

Work on Sound of Freedom began in 2015. Qanon didn’t show up until 2017. The film’s director has rightly dismissed any such link.

If you’re after a talking-dog movie that doesn’t take the cute route then Strays should satisfy, provided you can handle all the swearing, sex, and gags about dog poop.

Devoted pooch Reggie (voiced by Will Ferrell) is abandoned by his abusive owner Doug (Will Forte) and is convinced by a gang of stray dogs to stop being so nice and exact violent revenge instead. The humour is crude and delivered in such volume that most people in the mood for a Friday night wind down should find enough to laugh at, even though things do get nasty.

For those seeking cinema at the other end of the spectrum, Godland offers a beautiful, haunting, slow-moving art-movie experience as Danish priest Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) crosses a harsh Icelandic landscape in the late 1800s to build a church for a remote community.

Ravishing photography and some harsh themes about life in such an isolated locale make for a superb, gently paced film that commands attention from the very first frame to the gob- smacking final reel. Cineastes will love it.

The eventful life of the most courageous producer on the Australian music scene is profiled in the excellent feature-length documentary Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story.

Replete with archival footage and illuminating interviews, the film serves as a very fitting tribute to Gudinski, who died in March 2021 and whose visionary work brought the world Skyhooks, Split Enz and Kylie Minogue. (Opens 31 August)

The rather lacklustre year Disney is having at the cinemas is likely to continue with Haunted Mansion, an attempt at a spooky, ghost-filled comedy that is dull and visually gloomy. Set mostly in a large, poorly lit house crowded with floating spirits, a group of New Orleans residents try cleansing the place of its unwelcome guests.

It’s a drab two hours, folks, and for a film that reportedly cost $160 million to make, some of the visual effects are astonishingly lame. (Opens 31 August)

Though we didn’t really need another analysis of the courtroom stoush between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, the three-part Netflix docu-series Depp v. Heard offers a novel look at the case as it unfolded live before a global online audience.

As well as neatly compressing the key highlights from the event – including the brief Kate Moss appearance that effectively killed Heard’s defense – the show keeps focus on the real-time reactions across the internet, from serious commentary to those who treated the matter as fodder for their TikTok posts.

Serious issues are raised over Heard’s treatment online – she was ridiculed mercilessly – and whether her team was as prepared for battle as Depp’s, with some moments showing how they seemed to be a step ahead.

It’s a well-compiled digest of what went on though it is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about who the real victim was.

For more visit with updates on X at @jimschembri

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