★★★ / ★★★★
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?
Raid 2: Berandal, The (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Not since Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” have I felt so exhilarated after having seen an action picture packed with glorious violence that is very gruesome but actually highly entertaining—even if its running time is a hundred fifty minutes. Written and directed by Gareth Evans, do not be fooled by the synopses of “The Raid 2: Berandal.” It is not just a movie for men. It is a movie for everyone who can appreciate visual acrobatics through martial arts. Oh, and it offers a memorable car chase, too.
Rama (Iko Uwais—who clearly has the goods to carry a big-budget Hollywood action flick) agrees to go undercover in order to discover the identities of crooked cops. To do this, he must get in the good graces of a gangster’s son named Uco (Arifin Putra). The catch: Uco is currently incarcerated and so Rama must commit a crime, one that will impress the man of interest—or at least snag his attention, in order to be thrown behind bars.
American filmmakers who wish to have some sort of a hand-to-hand combat in their work should look up to this movie for inspiration. It is generous with wide shots, the editing is never choppy so we can actually appreciate each punch and kick thrown, it knows when to use silence so we can wince at every blow, and the style—whether in terms of location, style of clothing, sort of weapons wielded—changes with every big action scene. It is such a joy to watch this level of creativity. The writer-director knows his material is over-the-top but he has fun with it. Thus, we enjoy what’s projected on screen.
Its story and characterization are not the film’s strongest attributes. The story is standard and unable to move forward at times but it is solid enough because we really do believe that the gangsters, once rivals, have a truce and could be on the verge of war given a powerful enough push. In terms of character development, I wished that Rama had more of a backstory. He wants to protect his wife and young son from harm but what else is there to him? In action films, it is almost always that the central protagonist is not the most interesting character. It would have been fresh icing on the cake if Evans had found a way to turn that around.
More than half of the action sequences stand out. The prison fight scene in the mud is shockingly beautiful and well-choreographed. The way it starts off with so much verve and kinetics then ending with a slow descent into exhaustion shows clear command of pacing. The one and only car chase during the latter half makes American car chases look like a joke. Here, we are actually able to feel the danger inside and outside of the cars—even if they do not smash against each other.
However, in my eyes, the best is saved for the finale. Rama’s duels with Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle), Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman), and The Assassin (Cecep Arif Rahman) is close to perfection every step of the way. I was so into it, I found myself saying things like: “Break his arm!”, “Hit his face with the bat!”, and “I don’t care if she’s a girl. Hit her harder! She has two [expletive] hammers and she’s about to pound your face in!” Clearly, I loved every single minute of it.
“The Raid 2” is shot, directed, and choreographed with great skill. If one went into it hoping for a well-drawn and executed character arc, one would likely to be disappointed. But if one were hoping for an symphony of violence that engages all the senses, this would likely impress. It has to be seen to be believed.
★★ / ★★★★
I hated “V/H/S” so much, I was not sure I could stomach a sequel. However, I abide by a personal code of giving every film a chance so I leapt into “V/H/S/2,” composed of four segments and one unifier, feeling optimistic and willing to be impressed. In some ways, I was. There is a hidden gem here that deserves to be made into a full-length feature film.
“Tape 49,” the unifier, is not that segment. On the contrary, it is the least developed and most predictable of the bunch. Although it has potential because it involves two private investigators (Lawrence Michael Levine, Kelsy Abbott) who are looking for a college student that has gone missing, the writer-director, Simon Barrett, gives his characters neither engrossing detective work nor a functioning brain when turn of events bring up red flags. For a pair of detectives, it is most frustrating that they lack common sense.
The diamond in the rough is “Safe Haven,” written by Timo Tjahjanto and and Gareth Evans. It involves a documentary crew interviewing a leader of a cult (Epy Kusnandar). The latter is convinced that it would be a good idea for the filmmakers to be invited into the very private community, who believe they are on a journey to immortality, so that they can capture the truth and show the world that their faith is good and pure.
I watched the segment in complete fascination. Its turn of events reminded me of off-the-wall Japanese horror–the willingness and the energy to be creative and entertain. For twenty minutes, I experienced a spectrum of emotion, from being tickled by the greenness of the crew to horrified by what is being shown on screen. Yes, it gets violent and bloody but there is a method in the way it builds from serenity to convulsing madness. I could not help but wonder what Tjahjanto and Evans can do if they were given an hour and a half or so to develop their characters and helm the thematic elements.
Solid work can be found in Adam Wingard’s “Phase I Clinical Trials.” It tells the story of a man, played by Wingard, who has just received a prosthetic eye that records every single thing he sees or does. Though it grants him the gift of sight, there is a catch. The premise is similar to Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang’s “Gin gwai,” which makes it somewhat predictable, but there is a freshness in the way it takes its time to build. The extra beat or two of delay prior to the jolt matters when the mood is tense.
The two remaining segments, Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale’s “A Ride in the Park” and Jason Eisner’s “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” are more comedic than thrilling or scary, but they have their moments, too. It is an excellent decision to sandwich them between more serious work in order to prevent the mood and tone to go stale.
I enjoyed “V/H/S/2” because each part is able to offer something different to the table. While one or two of them is not great work by any means, as a whole it is a much brighter and more memorable compilation than its predecessor. Unlike the egregious “V/H/S,” there is not one segment here that comes off as an affront to the art of filmmaking. You get the feeling that this time the writers and directors strive to make something they can be proud of.
Serbuan maut (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
In order to capture and shut down a gangster who provided housing for all sorts of criminals, a group of cops had to storm a building and make their way up to the fifteenth floor where Tama (Ray Sahetapy) hid with his most trusted henchmen (Donny Alamsyah, Yayan Ruhian). The surreptitious incursion went rather swimmingly until the team reached the sixth floor. Once the alarm was triggered, the tables were turned and a bloody massacre began. The first act of “Serbuan maut,” written and directed by Gareth Evans, worked as suspenseful action-thriller because of the way the camera lingered and paid attention to the exact steps necessary for the cops to get into the building sans casualty. As the men took nervous but careful breaths and lined up along the compound’s walls with their courage, helmets, and guns, it felt like we were watching a real storming of a criminal base. I was so engrossed with what was happening, even a simple act of picking a lock triggered my imagination to think of the worst. For instance, what if the lock, once opened, had some sort of a fatal trap? When silence enveloped the action and the camera was up close on people’s faces, the writer-director capitalized on our suspicion that something was about to go very wrong. Unfortunately, the film’s middle section up until the very end felt lazy although that isn’t to suggest that it was without inspiration. The martial arts performed by the actors and stuntmen forced my eyes to widen in disbelief and fear while my mouth dropped open because of the level of violence shown on screen. There were plenty of moments when I flinched and psychically begged everyone to stop hurting each other. Everything was free game: the slicing of the flesh using small knives and machetes, releasing of bullets from guns placed directly on the back of the head as well as on the face, breaking of spinal cords using bare hands and convenient nearby objects, among others. It managed to keep my interest for some time. However, as it went on, I eventually craved for something more. The last thing I wanted was a story but the script was adamant in pursuing one. Between the action sequences were conversations that were frustratingly vague. Names were mentioned but it was difficult to keep track of who was being referred to and if the character was still alive or long dead. There was mindless talk of corruption and unexpected connections between two sides. I found it difficult to care. What I craved to see was more variation of the physical combat. The problem was each room and hallway looked pretty much the same: gray, dingy, and grimy. And since there weren’t enough significant changes in the environment, fighting styles and strategies remained the same and I noticed myself becoming increasingly bored. Luckily, Rama (Iko Uwais), our main protagonist who had a pregnant wife at home, had a very human quality about him. I suspected that if the script that been stronger, Uwais might have successfully played a hero who we could both root for and understand. I give “The Raid: Redemption” some credit for not mistaking bullets penetrating walls, appliances, and bodies as thrilling. Too bad, though, that its occasional peaks of creativity were hampered by monotonous dialogue.