★★★ / ★★★★
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?
★★ / ★★★★
Although not short on imagination, “Colossal,” written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, remains a marginal disappointment because it is unable to balance its dramatic shifts in tone. A picture about alcoholism, toxic relationships, and giant monsters attacking Seoul, South Korea requires writing so on point that it creates an effortless melding of variegated elements. What results is a watchable but frustrating film, full of potential but ultimately unsatisfying.
Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a New Yorker and an online columnist who also happens to be an alcoholic. Her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) is so fed up with the same old speech involving her willingness to make a change but history proves there is only inaction. Hathaway is able to play a spectrum of emotions and halfway through I wondered how she would fare in bleak dark comedies, a shade or two darker than her work in “Rachel Getting Married.” Here, she shows that she has a knack for looking like and being a miserable character but there is something about her portrayal that makes us wish to find out more about the flawed person who takes up a job as a waitress in her hometown. I wished, however, she would have refrained from employing her go-to wide-eyed innocent girl when situations present more interesting avenues to show other emotions.
I admired the film’s willingness to show what alcoholism does to a person. Initially, I found it quite off-putting that certain scenes would simply stop in its tracks, without closure or punchline, and then it is onto the next scene. Upon closer inspection, however, we realize that we experience what Gloria experiences on a day-to-day basis: random blackouts, inability to focus on tasks or conversations, the sheer exhaustion of having to keep one’s eyes open, the confusion of waking up in a room she doesn’t recognize. I enjoyed that the writer-director made the decision of allowing Hathaway to look beautiful physically but the ugliness lies within the characterization of both the performer and screenplay.
I found the giants fighting amongst South Korean skyscrapers to be cheesy and overlong despite being shown in quick bursts. I think that it is supposed to be cheesy on top of being silly, harmless, and amusing, but I did not buy fully into its conceit. The metaphor involving alcohol mixed with personal demons personified through these monsters is a hammer over the head, but it works well enough because Vigalondo grabs onto his ideas and pushes them all the way. There are even a few creative moments worth a chuckle or two. However, it must be pointed out that moments performed in front of a green screen are awkwardly put together, distracting, and ultimately taking away from the drama.
“Colossal” is for a select group of audience. If you believe monster movies, dark comedies involving a return to one’s small town, and character studies through veil of booze is niche, get a load of this one. I am happy to give it a marginal recommendation for those willing to see something on the fringe of mainstream. But viewers with certain defined expectations when it comes to how character studies should unfold might find it a better alternative to overlook the picture completely.
Guest, The (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
For a while “The Guest,” written by Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, is quite a solid throwback to thrillers from the ‘80s, but it ends up becoming a letdown because it fails to establish a protagonist the audience can root for. While it is enjoyable that the villain is written in such a way that we almost want him to get away with all of the things he did, at the same time we know that he must be punished for them. For the film to have been a fully effective throwback, however, polarity ought to have been established. In ‘80s thrillers, there is almost always a defined good versus evil.
The Peterson family has recently lost their son and brother in the war. So when a man named David (Dan Stevens) knocks on their door and introduces himself as one of Caleb’s close friends in the army, the Petersons welcome David into their home to stay for a couple of days until he figures out what to do next. Anna (Maika Monroe), the middle child, feels there is something not quite right about the guy so she decides to ask questions, starting with a call to the military.
Stevens plays David with such charisma that it is near impossible not to want to like him. The performance is comparable to what Ryan Gosling might do: approach a potentially morally corrupt character and try as hard as possible to hide that evil within. The key word is “try” because once in a while he lets out a certain look or stands in such a way that there is no shadow of a doubt that the person in front of us is not right in the head. It is a smart performance by Stevens; he hits all the right notes.
The weakness is in the character development of the two remaining siblings, Anna and Luke (Brendan Meyer), the duo that we are supposed to root for to survive the ordeal. While we are given a skeletal idea of who they are and what they deal with on a daily basis, they do not go through a significant change divorced from David’s direct influence. Thus, David has the active role while Anna and Luke merely respond. It might have been more engaging if the formula were changed once in a while.
The picture is at its lowest when the military gets involved. Great tension is gathered at times when there is only the family and the stranger living under the same roof. We grow curious as to how they can possibly outsmart or overpower David. There is suspense. However, when the guns come out and bullets come flying, it becomes a standard, unimpressive action film. It is a good decision, however, to have the final confrontation somewhere that is isolated with a synth pop soundtrack that injects excitement and poetry to the violent turn of events.
“The Guest” takes a number of risks. While some of them do not pay off, especially the scenes with the parents (Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser), a few high points are memorable. The scene at the bar with the high school bullies and Anna’s terrible timing of letting her secret out quickly come to mind. Certainly the picture entertains and has some style. However, one gets the impression that the writing is unfocused not only with respect to providing well-defined protagonists worth rooting for but also in the mishmash of genres prevalent in the second half.