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Posts from the ‘Well, I’m certainly not going through life with one hand tied behind my back. — James Dean’ Category


Snabba cash

Snabba cash (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Johan Westlund (Joel Kinnaman), nicknamed JW, is a student at the Stockholm School of Economics who happens to have rich friends. This is a problem because he comes from a humble background, but they tend to spend a ridiculous amount of money at parties and private gatherings, not to mention their fancy and expensive suits. JW hides the fact that he is a taxi driver to make extra cash. He is used to and is very good at pretending to be polished and wealthy, but meeting Sophie (Lisa Henni) changes everything. If he plans to keep up with his lies, he will need to make a lot of money in a very short amount of time. An opportunity presents itself when two warring groups fight over a highly profitable drug shipment.

“Snabba cash,” based on the novel by Jens Lapidus, never loses footing on the human factor of the story even though it is capable of going into details of organized crime. This is key because although there are double- and triple-crosses, we are allowed to understand the motivations behind the characters’ actions and so it never feels like the twists occur only to outsmart us. The entertainment value is there as well as drama that helps to propel the story forward in a way that makes sense.

There are three desperate men at the center of the story. JW is one of them and the others are Jorge (Matias Varela) and Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic), a Chilean and a Serb, a man who has escaped from prison with only one year left to serve and a father who is given the responsibility to take care of his young daughter, respectively. It is most interesting that JW wishes to go into the business, at least temporarily until he has enough money, while the other two are willing to do anything to get out while keeping their loved ones safe. The screenplay by Maria Karlsson gives us enough time to relate with each character, even though they may a bit rough around the edges, so when it is time to show the cards they are dealt with, we care about who wins or loses and to what degree.

Kinnaman is a man with poetry on his face. I was astounded with how much he is able to communicate by just staring intently at a fixed point. He is able to embody a young man so desperate for money that although few details are revealed about his background (some of them flat-out lies), we can imagine that it is likely that he did not have a lot while growing up. This is a person who keeps wanting. I loved the way the camera just leans in a little bit—but never lingering to avoid melodrama—as he considers whether or not to take an offer that might put his life at risk.

I believe that the most interesting characters come from screenplays that give us just enough elements to be able to construct a history based on what we believe best explains the person we see on screen. It is a way to mirror a part of ourselves onto something fictional so that we may understand ourselves a bit more. It exercises our imagination as well as our capacity for empathy and introspection.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa, “Easy Money” has slight pacing issues in the beginning, confusing at times become so many strands are introduced at once and it is difficult to tell who is connected to which group, but once it gets rolling, the dramatic momentum that is generated is similar to a thriller. There is a foreboding feeling that it will all go wrong somehow.



Overlord (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Overlord” is a well-made and expensive war and B-movie hybrid, so entertaining and thrilling from beginning to end, one may almost consider it to be miraculous that the admixture of wild ideas works on the gut level. The screenplay is helmed by Billy Ray and and Mark L. Smith; the pair must be credited because they are clearly inspired by war films of the past. Without their inspiration, coupled with the energetic direction by Julius Avery, the project might have turned out to be far less impressive, just another horror film that just so happens to take place during World War II, lumbering about in tedium and pointlessness.

For instance, observe the first scene that takes place inside a plane. It is interested in capturing the colorful personalities of the paratrooper squad before they are placed in the hellish reality of war. We wonder which of these men would make it onto the Nazi occupied French grounds to execute their mission: Destroy a German radio tower located inside a church so D-Day could succeed. The scene is busy, loud, certainly overwhelming. And yet—there is control behind the chaos.

Faces are framed as if the picture were a war drama. It captures seemingly insignificant moments like nervous fingers tapping on a weapon. Growing anxiety and fear in trained soldiers’ eyes. Some of them look so sad and terrorized, we get the impression they would rather be anywhere else than inside that plane at that particular time. These decisions tether the pandemonium in something relatable and real. We care about these men even before they are required to jump off the plane.

Events on the ground are equally observant. Open spaces pose a threat. Enemy soldiers might be lurking behind dense bushes and trees. While at times their laughter can be heard from several yards away, it is more often that they do not reveal their location until they start firing. Mutated corpses of animals—or are they animals?—can be found strewn about. Dialogue is employed to establish rapport. And just as quickly a person drops dead just when we are starting to believe he might make it at least halfway through the mission. These moments of suspense and sheer shock are highly reminiscent of 1970s war films. And these details are presented way before the creepy underground laboratory situated inside the church. These are more inspired by B-movies of the 1980s. Notice the lighting. These are dim on purpose not just because the setting is underground but also to being to mind horror films released during that decade.

Despite its influences, the film is not simply a cheap imitation because it strives to forge an identity of its own. This characteristic is what separates the work from mediocrity. Less imaginative writers could have just as easily turned the movie into a parade of references, from science-gone-wrong “Re-Animator” to gore-fests like “Hostel.” Instead, connective tissues between scenes are strong; we know exactly why certain parts must be moved. I especially enjoyed Quentin Tarantino’s influence, particularly in how one seemingly nondescript location is used to exorcise various horrors. Yes, even “Ingloruious Basterds” comes to mind, especially in the idea that Nazis are pure evil manifested in human form. A bullet to the head is not enough. They must be killed by fire.

There is a lot to bite into here should one bother to look. But entertainment comes first. One can make a case that the action becomes repetitive after a while. Running around the hidden laboratory is not that interesting until our protagonists come face-to-face with experiments gone wrong. Still, I didn’t mind. The manic energy that propels the visuals ensures that we remain invested.


The Rider

Rider, The (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The poetry embedded in every frame and every feeling of “The Rider” is something that mainstream Hollywood pictures can only dream of. It offers a different type of entertainment—one that is quiet, yearning, inspiring the viewer look within, to ponder about one’s place in life and where it is possibly heading, rather than eliciting reductive and evanescent reactions stemming from sudden turns in plot or pacing. From its simple but elegant visual style to its deeply humanist approach of allowing the camera to rest on faces and bodies—including that of animals—writer-director Chloé Zhao has created a work that will undoubtedly stand the test of time. It is a joy that it took me completely by surprise.

One may read plot summaries and jump to the conclusion that the story is boring, perhaps even depressing. But there is nothing boring or depressing about it. Adopting almost a documentary style, even employing real people who play a version of themselves, Zhao ensures that we relate to the drama. The style is so confronting, we look at the physically broken Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) and wonder how we would react when our own bodies are forced to give up our passions. Brady, you see, had just undergone a major operation on his skull because he had fallen off a horse at a rodeo show. Medical professionals advise him never to ride again or risk losing his life.

I found the picture to be uplifting and moving despite the subject matter. This is because the writer-director has a way of catching deeply personal moments that ring so true, I was actually reminded of beautiful moments in my own life, especially the impressions that have made an imprint in my mind and my heart.

One sequence that I found to be unforgettable is Brady training wild horses. Errors in hand placement, pulling the rope a little bit harder than one ought to, or making sudden movements makes the horse react. You can tell that Jandreau has been around horses all his life, that he respects and loves these creatures deeply, because of the way he puts even the most temperamental animals at ease. At times he does so simply by making eye contact with them. I found the psychic connection, or whatever is, so poignant. Meanwhile, Zhao commands control of the camera by simply capturing a person doing his job. As a result, we learn plenty about horse training—what to do, what not to do, and the importance of instinct—by observation. The approach is romantic rather than analytical.

There is even poetry in keeping us at arm’s length. An incredibly touching scene involves Brady having to say goodbye to a white horse named Gus. Observe how the two of them riding across the prairie is shot. Initially, there is no wide shot in which the rider and the horse can be seen together completely. We see images of the horse’s powerful legs galloping across the land. We notice Brady’s exhilaration of being on a horse again after his skull surgery. He doesn’t smile but he holds the experience with pride.

We see the rider, the horse, and the pale light background—but the framing is executed in such a way that there is no full body shot. The incompleteness, so to speak, is done on purpose, you see, because Zhao, I think, wishes to preserve the final intimate moment between the horse and his owner. We are welcome to observe… but we cannot share their moment on the level that they are sharing it. And when finally do see a full body shot of them together, we are still kept at a good distance. So, as you see, there is a lot of thought put into how its images are put together. It makes a world of difference.

“The Rider” is best discovered and so I made sure to touch only the surface in this review. Those with a penchant for deeply humanist stories are certain to be spellbound by its seemingly simple premise and execution. There is a wealth of insight to be found here.


The Hatred

Hatred, The (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Michael G. Kehoe’s “The Hatred” begins promisingly as it comes across unconcerned when it comes to how supernatural horror films ought to begin. With an extended introductory portion set in the 1960s, which lasts between fifteen to twenty minutes, we are given a near complete understanding of how an ordinary farmhouse becomes haunted. However, its ability to surprise does not remain throughout. When it makes the jump to present time, it is reduced to yet another horror film in which a babysitter must protect a child from an evil entity.

The picture lacks an ear for dialogue coupled with rather inexperienced or unpolished acting across the board. Notice that exchanges do not last longer than a minute. The longer characters speak, it becomes all the more apparent that performers are merely reciting memorized lines rather than feeling them, actually walking in the shoes of characters to be portrayed. This creates a feeling of watching a soap opera—a critical mistake because some key lines are designed to establish the mythos of a mysterious artifact.

Sarah Davenport plays Regan, the babysitter hired for the weekend by her former professor and his wife. Regan is accompanied by three friends from college (Gabrielle Bourne, Bayley Corman, Alisha Wainwright) who are astounded by the fact that Regan actually wishes to live in a rural community for a job. While four babysitters instead of one is a fresh decision, the script fails to discern among these personalities in a meaningful way. It does not help that the performers tend to rest on a limited range of delivering lines. Perhaps a standout is Samantha, the blonde we expect to bite the dust first. But a twist: she is the most academically curious of the bunch. Is this subversion enough for the character to make it through the horrifying weekend?

The scares are by-the-numbers and unexciting. Of course, the night is dark and full of rain; lights flash on and off as the house makes creaking noises behind the walls and down the hall. And when visual effects are employed to show the malevolent entity, the sudden boom of the score is bound to dispirit experienced horror viewers. Far more effective are scenes where Samantha goes through old papers and photographs, even going online for further research, as she and her friends attempt to decipher the secrets of its former residents.

Clearly not without potential, especially when it touches upon a certain group’s history with the occult, “The Hatred” might have been a stronger work had the writer-director not limited his film too much with genre conventions in order to be more palatable to modern audiences. Imagine this piece shot through the eyes of a mid-‘70s to early-‘80s horror fanatic. It would have been a different beast entirely.


Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

It is not often that I encounter a dramatic film in which I find myself—multiple times—having to pull my eyes away from the screen because what’s going on is so realistic, looking at the images feels like a breach of privacy. “Beautiful Boy” is based on the memoirs “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction” and “Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines” by David and Nic Sheff, respectively, and the works are adapted to the screen by searing honesty by Luke Davies and Felix Van Goreningen. It is not interested in using large brushes to paint a portrait of drug addiction. Instead, it is specific to Nic’s story and his family’s numerous attempts to help him.

It shows how so many movies about drug addiction tend to utilize clichés to amplify the drama. In order to avoid common trappings, observe how it employs time. For instance, within a span of twenty minutes, several weeks or months can pass. Flashbacks are introduced in a non-linear fashion. An unexpected dramatic parabola is created and so our expectations are shuffled like a deck of cards. Sometimes these expectations do not materialize at all. And yet, intriguingly, we still have a full appreciation of the subjects’ struggles.

This can be attributed partly to the film’s strong central performances. Steve Carrell plays the father and Timothée Chalamet plays the son. Their interactions command great tension, particularly during moments when David feels he must confront Nic about his disease. Each confrontation is different. At times it is approached from the perspective of anger. Sometimes confusion. Other times of great frustration. The father wishes to understand his son’s affliction, but he fails to see that his son doesn’t understand it either. Yet despite the whirlwind of rehab centers, sleepless nights, Nic going missing for days, and receiving calls from various professionals, there is always love there. Sometimes love isn’t always in the form of being there or giving. Sometimes love comes in the form of restraint.

Carrell and Chalamet appears to feed off one another’s energy. And so when the father looks at his son and asks whether he is on drugs, the question is not really a question. A parent always knows deep down. And so I wished Maura Tierney, who plays Nic’s stepmother, were given more to do. Tierney is wonderful when she must act in the background. Great performers can say a lot without saying a word. Standing from a few feet away with a concerned body posture tells us plenty. While it is appropriate that the camera focuses on father and son, I found my curiosity inching toward her character sometimes. David has two young children with Karen. It is apparent that Nic’s sudden disappearances impacts them, too. They ask about him. They miss him. They know he is on drugs.

I loved that the material manages to set aside some time to present facts not normally shown in movies involving drug addiction. For example, we see brain scans and hear what methamphetamines does to the brain, particularly in the amygdala. There is talk about receptors being destroyed following consistent meth usage. Given enough time, these receptors might recover. These are seemingly small but important details—mundane to some. They are often found, for instance, in science books or niche documentaries, not dramatic films. I enjoyed that it assumes viewers will be interested in details rather than repelled by scientific or medical jargon. It treats viewers as curious and intelligent. It may even inspire them to do more research about the topic. To further understand drug addiction, one must have an appreciation of biological events.


Creep 2

Creep 2 (2017)
★ / ★★★★

The original “Creep” may not be groundbreaking independent horror cinema, but at least the audience did not know what to expect. We wondered whether Aaron (Mark Duplass) really was a serial killer or just some lonely creep who decided to post an online ad in order to see who would bite. But in “Creep 2,” also directed by Patrick Brice, the novelty—and the mystery—has worn off. I found it to be nearly intolerable—not because it is not scary since the predecessor is not about scares but establishing an overall feeling of dread—precisely because it fails to offer anything new or exciting. Sure, the dialogue is stronger than the original but the script fails to move the material beyond what we already know about the murderer.

At least the picture begins with great promise. Desiree Akhavan plays Sara, an artist who is attempting to reach an audience for an online web series called “Encounters.” For her project, she answer online ads—especially those with strange requests like a man asking to be treated like an infant—with the hope of finding genuine connections and understanding a feeling we all have from time to time: loneliness. We get the impression that the character is smart, determined, and not easily scared by bizarre human longings and behavior. It establishes that she is a protagonist worth following because she might serve as an equal to Aaron’s sick games and psychotic behavior.

Funny confessions like Aaron claiming that he has lost his purpose for killing people because he is about to turn forty are present and often have bite. As in “Creep,” this work is further evidence that Duplass is perfect for the role; when he looks directly to camera and talks about murdering his victims as if he were reciting a recipe is chilling and effective. However, these amusing moments wear out their welcome because only minimal tension is gathered. It is a miscalculation, I think, for the screenplay to establish a sort of romantic connection between Aaron and Sara—even a one-sided attraction—because it softens our anticipation of bloody violence. And for long stretches nothing of great interest happens.

The more interesting avenue worth exploring is the question of whether we can or will choose to believe a person who has confessed to serial killing when this individual looks as normal as Average Joe: friendly, smiles a lot, and minds his own business. I thought the material would take off in an interesting direction when Sara is shown a video of Aaron, wearing a wolf mask, driving an ax into a stranger’s head in broad daylight. Sara has reason to doubt the video’s authenticity, but the idea is never explored in such a way that makes us feel uncomfortable both in terms of content and for Sara’s safety. Instead, the material moves on to another instance when Aaron acts like a drama queen.

I found not one thing that is especially clever in “Creep 2.” Cringe-inducing moments are aplenty, but I demand more from a material with a wonderful potential to entertain and terrify. Although an average picture, “Creep” has laid the foundation quite successfully. So it is expected for the sequel to take off from that foundation and do something new or original. Instead, it seems content in rehashing old tricks with a slightly stronger script. More discerning viewers will readily see through its pretenses.


Hearts Beat Loud

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jaded viewers might assume that the premise of a father-daughter duo forming a band called We Are Not a Band—cheeky, possibly twee—will offer mere puppies and rainbows, but “Hearts Beat Loud,” written by Brett Haley and Marc Basch, is sharper than the average comedy-drama-musical because it shows that life does not move out of anybody’s way. It’s adapt or perish. It shows that virtues like love, passion, and friendship—or even a successful debut performance—are not enough to change the course of what must happen. Despite this, the film is highly watchable and entertaining. Although not afraid of silence at times, notice how music is almost always present, as if it were the very air our subjects breathe.

Sam (Kiersey Clemons) hopes to become a physician and she believes that attending UCLA as a pre-med will take her one step closer to her dream. She is so excited, she decided to take pre-med summer camp courses during the summer. But given that she and her father, Frank (Nick Offerman), live in Brooklyn, New York, the latter has started to experience separation anxiety on top of financial stresses involving his failing vinyl shop. His solution: start a band with his daughter who is clearly gifted musically. Maybe they could start a band and tour the country.

This surprisingly toe-tapping picture wonderfully captures how it feels like for someone who is about to leave for university. Clemons is so natural in the role that she can stand in one spot simply reacting to somebody and her body language, especially her expressive eyes, communicates plenty. Looking at the character closely, I felt she is unchallenged by the neighborhood she grew up in, that she hopes to start over in a new location where her mother’s death doesn’t linger, that it is also her goal to be able to help her father financially once she has established a career. The great thing is none of these are mentioned in the film. Look closely and there are hints scattered around that Sam is always thinking, planning.

She is also a highly feeling person—there are instances when her father frustrates her but she has learned to compartmentalize. This ability makes room for a fresher script. Instead of typical confrontations in which characters raise their voices when they disagree or when another stayed past curfew, the material makes room for not only unpredictability but also pain that lingers longer or deeper than when conflict must occur because a dramatic parabola or timing must be followed. I admired that this work would rather allow room for making or singing songs than having to create shallow or inconsequential exchanges. No, it is not because the filmmakers wish to make a musical. It is able to capture a spirit, a flow.

The songs are catchy, their lyrics are personal, and the performances are believable. Watch Clemons closely. She plays the character like a real girl rather than a wannabe pop star. When belting out the lyrics, she is an an actor first and a singer second—she performs to deliver the emotions behind the song, not to look good while singing or to reach the higher notes perfectly. She is willing to contort her face. She is unafraid to use her limbs even though certain angles may not look as flattering. Her approach of making Sam thoroughly relatable is smart. I look forward to the decisions she makes in her future roles.

“Hearts Beat Loud,” directed by Brett Haley, is not just about the headstrong daughter who is about to go off to college. The other half is about the father, who was in a band back in the day but never reached the fame or success he thought he could have, who longs to be with his daughter for a second longer… and then another. There is a sadness to Offerman’s character that is worth dedicating an entire script toward. Supporting characters like the landlord (Toni Collette) and the best friend/bartender (Ted Danson) are quite interesting, too. But credit goes to the screenwriters delivering a work that is both efficient and entertaining.



Lovelace (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Before bearing the stage name Linda Lovelace and starring in Gerard Damiano’s pornographic picture called “Deep Throat,” twenty-one-year-old and somewhat of a prude Linda Boreman (Amanda Seyfriend) meets Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard) outside a roller skating rink and she is quickly won over by his charm. Soon enough, Linda decides to move out of her parents’ house and gets married to Chuck. When money becomes a problem eventually, Linda’s well-connected husband convinces Damiano to allow her to star in an adult film that will eventually gross over half a billion dollars.

Though “Lovelace,” directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friendman, is wise to avoid a hyperbolic route in telling Linda’s tragic story, it is limited by an unimpressive screenplay by Andy Bellin. It employs an unnecessarily confusing non-linear approach disguised as so-called complexity, but just about anyone with a discerning eye is likely able to see right through the fog. Why not just tell the story straight?

The first half is not especially strong but it is somewhat engaging because Seyfried’s saucer-like eyes embody a vulnerable, girl-next-door innocence. It is critical what we believe that the lead character is just like any other girl living in suburbia so we feel some sort of impact once we see her thrusted into a world of unblinking cameras and men who think with something else other than their brain. There are times when I wanted to protect and nurture Linda as if she were a wounded bird.

But the pacing is unforgivingly fast in that it fails to allow us to absorb small but important moments. It races to the making of the infamous pornographic movie and slows down significantly. Not allowing us to spend enough time with the important people in Linda’s life before her superstardom is a problem because we have but a tiny understanding, mostly based on assumptions, as to why people are acting the way they do. As a result, for the most part, Linda’s father (Robert Patrick) appears largely absent while her mother (Sharon Stone) comes off vindictive and controlling. Patrick and Stone have one or two good scenes but there is only a thin dimension to their characters as a whole.

It switches gears halfway through by going back to the beginning of Linda and Chuck’s marriage in order to provide an alternative view when it comes to the dynamics of their relationship. This is a miscalculation because there are more than enough clues—some very obvious—that point to an unhappy union. Explaining every detail disrupts the rhythm of the story being told and I found myself questioning when it would eventually move forward.

I wanted to see more interactions between Seyfried and Juno Temple, the latter playing Linda’s best friend named Patsy. I suspected a lot of their scenes did not make it through the editing room because some of the scenes that did make it onto the final cut hint at a possible arc. For instance, in the first half, Patsy is almost reckless in pushing Linda try to new things. In the latter half, she actually hopes that her friend will take the time and consider her options.

It is most unfortunate that the material’s priorities are, for the most part, misplaced. A person’s story is best told through subtleties so that the audience can appreciate what makes his or her trials special enough to warrant being put into celluloid. Though “Lovelace” has good performances all around, the screenplay is simply not ready to dig through hidden depths.


Hold the Dark

Hold the Dark (2018)
★ / ★★★★

The picture begins with a curious mystery involving a boy (Beckam Crawford) being taken by wolves. At least this is what his mother, Medora (Riley Keough), claims to have happened. This is the third child that had been abducted in their Northern Alaska village. She is so desperate and so afraid that her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), a soldier currently overseas, would come home without any facts to offer him that she requests the help of Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), a man with extensive experience of tracking down wolves.

Although based on the novel by William Giraldi, screenwriter Macon Blair and director Jeremy Saulnier fail to translate the story from page to screen in a way that is entertaining or enlightening. Mildly curious at times because the mythos of the village, the people who live there, and the animals within the vicinity are so alive, it is such a disappointment then that the majority of the film is a soporific experience, moving slower than molasses for no reason other than to test the patience. Perhaps the intention is to drench the audience in atmosphere and mood, but it is ineffective because it does not give us reason to remain emotionally invested. A slow pacing does not generate interest out of thin air.

Halfway through the film, I caught myself feeling appalled that it is directed by Saulnier, a filmmaker no stranger in establishing a calculated pace and then breaking it by sudden bouts of violence (“Blue Ruin,” “Green Room”). While the approach is present here, unlike his previous work, the feeling behind the strategy is lifeless. It is like someone else attempting to make a poor imitation of Saulnier. I wondered if he has gotten tired of his usual tricks.

It is like clockwork. For instance, prior to the explosive violence, we are asked to endure the characters speak to one another in either monotone or whispers. It is a requirement that they look miserable or sad. Notice there is no reason for them to speak in this manner. Most of the time it comes across as a performance rather than a genuine moment in time of simply being. As a result, we grow detached from the characters being put onto the canvas. A scene or two after such conversations, somebody shoots another with a gun point-blank, or someone is stabbed, others are shot with an arrow. Another employs an assault rifle to mow down local police. I found the charade to be painfully predictable.

“Hold the Dark” is most frustrating because it is an amalgamation of ideas that, at first glance, do not or should not fit together: animals are behaving strangely, there is talk about being possessed by demons when masks are worn, American Indians reference their folklores to try to explain or hint to an outsider what is possibly going on, and the community tending to have its own unspoken rules. It is the writer and director’s job to put these pieces together in a way that is presentable and welcoming—especially for viewers who many not be interested initially with these occurrences.

The failure of the film, I think, can be attributed to the filmmakers’ lack of understanding of the source material. Because if they did thoroughly understand, joy and excitement could be felt even from the most depressing or bleakest story. The viewers would have a complete understanding of themes, character motivations, and the reason why this story is special to this Alaskan village. Instead, the work is opaque for the sake of being opaque.



Apostle (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

The name Gareth Evans is not yet a household name, but trust that in time it will be.

Stepping out of the Indonesian martial arts pictures “The Raid” and its superior sequel, writer-director Evans offers a period horror film in which a man named Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) infiltrates a religious cult after his sister’s kidnapping. The ransom note demands that their father be the one to visit the island, but it is impossible given that the old man is no longer mentally present. “Apostle” is a film that could have been told in ninety minutes, but its length, particularly its willingness to immerse the viewer in the villagers’ way of life, is exactly what I admired about it. It puts the audience into a specific mood as insane images begin to parade across the screen like multiple crashes with gruesome fatalities. It is no “Final Destination 2” but gorehounds are certain to be satisfied.

It does magic right by keeping it minimal. Residents of the isolated Welsh island revere a goddess that provides them good crops—at least until recently. Lately, the crops have become toxic and the animals stopped breeding. Those that did end up giving birth, they produced abnormal offsprings, certain to die out of the womb. Although this island is rooted in magical workings, I enjoyed the decision to downplay it. As a result, visual effects, like CGI, is almost never required in order to get the point across. Instead, we learn to rely on our imagination when practical effects are shown to us. For instance, we are shown the insides of crops, how its contents react to water. There is implication that it would lead to death if eaten.

Another example is showing the goddess herself. Focusing on her magic, like what results after having to wave her arms around, would have been laughable, inappropriate in a story like this. Instead, the camera focuses on her withered appearance, perhaps even inspiring us to wonder how she might have looked like during her prime. There is a sadness in her appearance; it is the correct decision not to make her look scary or terrifying in a classical sense. Because the point of the story, I think, is that the humans, especially three former convicts who started the cult (Michael Sheen, Mark Lewis Jones, Paul Higgins), are the monsters, not the supernatural elements that we typically fear.

The film is beautifully photographed, from the aerial shots of the verdant island down to the well-worn ground that the characters tread upon. Huts look convincing and floorboards look dingy and fragile. And so when a character, for instance, breaks down walls or falls through floorboards with seeming ease, there is believability to it. Surprisingly, there is also beauty in the torture scenes, particularly when devices are utilized. Notice how the camera is not afraid to be as close as possible when sharp metal hits human flesh. It dares us to keep looking even though we feel absolutely disgusted—partly tickled—with what is occurring.

“Apostle” is a horror film worth seeing because it strives to absorb the viewers into a particular world rather than simply providing cheap entertainment. While it lacks in generic jump scares, which are not scary anyway, a thick and foreboding atmosphere can be felt throughout. It dares to embrace the strange, willing to take advantage of culture-specific mythos many of us may not be familiar with. After all, what is horror but a glimpse inside of an alien world that we can only try to make sense of?


The Transfiguration

Transfiguration, The (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

A dark character drama with a premise of a horror film, “The Transfiguration” begins with great promise but fizzles out about halfway through when one realizes we are simply being made to sit through a series of uneventful scenarios in which the punchline is repeated until boredom sets in. Had writer-director Michael O’Shea taken another pass at his screenplay, I think, or I hope, he would have realized that breaking the ennui is necessary to tell a compelling story even though the subject’s malaise, his deep melancholy, is itself the point.

Milo (Eric Ruffin) is convinced he is a vampire—so convinced that he murders unsuspecting strangers and drinks their blood. He is obsessed with nearly everything that has to do with vampirism—books, movies, television shows, magazines—so long as they are realistic. (He is more a fan of “Let the Right One In” than “Twilight.”) I enjoyed that the title sounds fantastical, but the story is truly a study of a pathological condition: Milo is a budding serial killer… and yet we are asked to understand him.

I welcomed its goal of trying to comprehend what goes on in the mind of someone who feels the need to kill. We observe Milo’s life at home—how he is barely raised by his brother (Aaron Moten) because both of their parents have died; his community—a poor neighborhood in which the majority of the population is black; what goes on at school—particularly with the counselor he is required to visit; how he attempts to make a connection with a girl named Sophie (Chloe Levine) who is new to the neighborhood. Although an important piece worth looking into can be found in every one of these contributing factors, the screenplay fails to move beyond them eventually. A third of the way through, I began to notice ideas being repeated and nearly every unfortunate encounter feels like padding.

We get it: Milo is disturbed and depressed—a dangerous combination for himself and those around him. But what else? Given that the material is supposed to be a character study, there has to be more than situational drama. I wondered if we were supposed to empathize with Milo. At least to me, he is already beyond help in that he has killed—more than twice or even three times—which is established within the picture’s opening minutes. So why is it worth following this subject? What makes him special beyond his pathology? When the end credits began to roll, I felt I had no idea. But I feel it must be stated that Ruffin has done a solid attempt in creating a convincing character who is so closed off from the world that he began to feel supernatural, maybe even superhuman, despite a stagnant screenplay. I felt that he is capable of doing so much more.

Some scenes are quite chilling, particularly when Milo leads a white male teenager into his apartment building only to watch his prey get killed by gang members. (I believe Milo had every intention of murdering the teenager before circumstances changed.) Notice the lack of empathy in those eyes. Gunshots do not even make him flinch. Maybe Milo is a vampire: dead on the inside. These dramatic developments are few and far between, however.