★★★ / ★★★★
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?
Brad’s Status (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Some reviews will claim that in order to have a complete appreciation for the whip-smart comedy “Brad’s Status,” written and directed by Mike White, one would have to be middle-aged because the topics it tackles requires considerable life experience. But I say anybody who constantly checks in with themselves will be able to connect with and enjoy the film for its searing honesty and ability to remain in touch with both the humor and the drama of a situation depending on one’s mood, personality, or general perspective when it comes to how life works. This film is clearly made for observant viewers.
The titular character, played by Ben Stiller, is most unhappy as of late because he constantly finds himself dreaming forward and regretting the past, rarely choosing to be present in the now, appreciating the great things in his life, and relishing what he has accomplished thus far. Although I do not relate to Brad’s suffering, despite his neuroses, I recognized this character right away: he is a colleague at work, a stranger walking down the street, a family member who puts on a fake smile during reunions. I empathized with him, but I did not feel sorry for him. The material is interested in dissecting differences between seemingly similar emotions.
Stiller fits the role like a glove. Observe how he expertly navigates a series of thoughts and feelings, often in one sitting and in quick successions, that run across Brad’s face. Couple the performer’s craft with an energetic screenplay that courageously combines daydreams, flashbacks, and scalding reality in a blender, what results is a highly watchable, entertaining, and surprisingly insightful look at a privileged man who has everything he needs yet still finds himself wanting for more. He doesn’t exactly know why he craves more, it’s just that he does.
He claims he is envious of his former college friends (Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson, Mike White) because they possess power, ludicrous amount money, women, and fame, but notice how Brad, someone so detail-oriented when it comes to his yearnings, fails to describe what he would actually do if he acquired such things. Why is this man creating the pandemonium in his mind? Does he find pleasure in putting himself through mental agony? Does he have a mood or mental disorder? Is it his way of coping with the fact that his son (Austin Abrams), a gifted musician, is soon moving away for university? I enjoyed that the writer-director is not afraid to introduce possibilities thereby making the work layered, consistently worthy of exploration from different angles.
Perhaps the best moments in this sharp and humane film involve the father looking at his son and weighing whether the boy in front of him would become competition, whether the boy would eventually make him feel small, insignificant, like a loser—just like the way his former friends “made” him feel throughout the years. It is during moments like these that “Brad’s Status” is at its bravest and most uncomfortable—which makes it so worthy of our time because it forces us to look inwards, recognize, and perhaps even come to terms with some of our own monsters.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
The plan is for Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) to get married in California after their mini-vacation in Paris. Gil, already a successful Hollywood writer for movies but currently hoping to break into the literary scene, informs his bride-to-be that he wants to live there for the time being because he is inspired by so many things: the magnificent architectures, the amazing art, and the histories behind them. He is even able to find beauty in the way the rain tends to cover the streets like a warm blanket.
But Inez does not want to live in Paris–end of discussion. She scoffs at the way he romanticizes the city. While walking around at midnight, something magical happens. Gil is able to walk into the 1920s, his favorite decade, and meet his idols: literary icons like F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll).
Written and directed by Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris” shows us the slow decomposition of a relationship through fantastic encounters. A lot of care is put into the central character. Though the tone is light and accessible, the screenplay is concerned about details: what Gil feels and thinks about his career and relationship, the people of the past that he is able to interact with, and, eventually, to consider doing what is necessary so he can move forward.
The scenes set in 2010 as Gil interacts with Inez and her family (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy) are both maddening and amusing. I found Inez’ side to be really annoying because they are the kind of people who buy a $20,000 chair and not feel guilty about it. Their big problems consists of silly things like which clothing are appropriate to wear at a party or if they are coming off as smart or worldly enough to their acquaintances. Still, they find a way to complain about something. At the same time, I was entertained because Gil is so passive toward them at times. Clearly, he is the conduit between our simpler worlds and the disgustingly privileged just as he is the bridge between the past and the future.
Despite the glamour, the story remains relatable. I loved the scenes when the couple are forced to listen to pedantic Paul (Michael Sheen) about the history of each landmark and artwork. Even if he is wrong, he considers himself to be right. We all know people like Paul. What is it about certain people who feel that they know or must be right about everything? Given that they encounter others with similar know-it-all personalities, do they get annoyed around each other? Even with supporting characters like Paul, I enjoyed that the script inspired me to wonder.
The midnight time jumps to the 1920s is a welcome conceit. They are shot in beautiful bright yellow glow. While the scenes in 2010 focuses on negative energy that surrounds Gil, the 1920s are positive and golden. Wilson has played plenty of good guys, but I have never seen him so likable and in command of his effortless charm. He gives Gil a certain level of humility so our protagonist approaches legendary authors and artists as a wide-eyed fan, perhaps the way we would have if we were given a chance to meet the artists face-to-face.
It is joyful meeting colorful figures like Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), and Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), but the film does not lose track that this is about Gil’s journey as a budding writer, not just a revolving door of highly influential figures. By touching them physically, discussing and exchanging ideas, as well as taking note of their flaws, Gil is able to gain a fresh perspective on how to write and edit his novel. In addition and equally important, by spending time with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), Pablo Picasso’s then-girlfriend and muse, he learns that maybe Inez needs a man who has a more polarizing personality. Life is short and we should lead a life that is deserving of us.
“Midnight in Paris” entertains in a subdued way. While the pacing is slow at times, complementing Gil’s relaxed personality, its quirks do not overshadow the emotions. Like a novel worthy of reading while under soft blankets, there is elegance in the way in sashays from one encounter to another.
Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, The (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Three days after Edward (Robert Pattinson) turned Bella (Kristen Stewart) into a vampire in order to save her life moments after giving birth, it appears that it is literally happily ever after for the couple and their half-human, half-vampire child named Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy). But when Irina (Maggie Grace), sees the little girl from afar, she is convinced that the Cullens have committed a most egregious crime. In the vampire community, it is illegal to create an Immortal Child because they cannot be controlled. She proceeds to report what she had witnessed to the head of the Volturi, Aro (Michael Sheen), vampire royalty who maintains the secrecy of vampires’ existence from humans. Treating the matter with utmost urgency, it is decided that the Cullens are to be forced to meet true deaths.
There is no point in hiding the fact that a part of me groans a little every time I watch a trailer of an upcoming “Twilight” picture ever since the first installment disappointed my already low expectations. And yet I continued to watch the series because although it is most often a letdown (it does have some good moments), for me, it always had potential to become an above average action-fantasy and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2,” based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer and screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg, proves that my suspicion is right.
The first part drags as if we have forever to spare. There is a contrivance involving the Cullens, now including Bella, attempting to keep a secret from Bella’s father (Billy Burke). That is, he cannot know that his own daughter has been turned into a vampire. As usual, the screenplay provides very little depth to the circumstances so the Cullens end up very unlikeable. The most effective fantasies come hand-in-hand with being well-written. It is paramount that it establishes a world that we can immerse ourselves into so when an outrageous thing like preventing a father from knowing that his child has died (essentially), we understand and sympathize with the moral and ethical conundrums.
There is a little bit of everything from the past films, from Jacob (Taylor Lautner) taking off his clothes before he transforms into a werewolf to Bella and Edward looking longingly at each other (key word: long) before they start to grab each other’s bodies and the filmmakers bathe whatever is going on in warm colors. Small dosages go a long way because it gives more time to explore new territories. The film begins to pick up momentum when the Cullens recruit vampires from all over the globe to support them just in case a battle erupts between them and the Volturi.
The action scenes toward the end are thrilling. A few characters we have grown to like (and hate) meet the most gruesome deaths, limbs are chopped off, and bodies are burnt. I liked that the war is not between army of thousands but only a couple of handful. And since the good guys are outnumbered around three to one, there is enough threat to wonder how many of the good guys will survive. In the middle of the pandemonium, I could not help but wonder how much I would have enjoyed the series more if the writer and filmmakers’ creative license had been exercised more often. I admit that the twist at the end had me going. It should not work but it does here.
“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2,” directed by Bill Condon, may disappoint fans of the novels but, as a movie, it ends on a right note. I enjoyed the action. Also, I found that the thicker a vampire’s accent, the more I am inclined to want to know more about him or her. For instance, I wished Vladimir (Noel Fisher) and Stefan (Guri Weinberg) were in it more. However, I am reluctant to give the film an enthusiastic recommendation for sheer action. A lot of questions are unanswered, many motivations are unexplored, and the first third is lifeless. Having said that, it is the most fun of the bunch.
Jesus Henry Christ (2012)
★ / ★★★★
By the time Patricia reached the age of ten, she had to take care of what remained in her family of seven: herself and her father. Her mother died in an fiery accident, her twin brothers died out of stupidity, one brother died from a disease, and another brother left for Canada because he did not want to be drafted to Vietnam. It was the late 90s when toughened Patricia (Toni Collette) had her first child named Henry (Jason Spevack), conceived via a cell culture dish but gifted with a photographic memory so clear, the best universities would be lucky to nurture his capabilities. Out of all the questions in the universe, his efforts focused on finding the identity of his father. Based on the screenplay and directed by Dennis Lee, “Jesus Henry Christ” was an especially exasperating experience to sit through because its potential was wasted so systemically through one cute, precious, and quirky scene after another. Instead of focusing on the human factor while improbable coincidences occurred for the sake of plot convenience, a way of giving it a semblance of realism, it was more focused on style than substance. What I wanted was simple: to feel the bond between a mother and son, one symbolized experience and the other raw potential, respectively. As more characters were introduced by the script, naturally, more conflict ensued. Dr. O’Hara (Michael Sheen) was a renowned author who published a book, more or less, about her daughter, Audrey (Samantha Weinstein), called “Born Gay or Made That Way?”. Because of his work, Audrey had to endure tremendous amount of bullying at school, her peers calling her “lesbo,” especially from an obnoxious classmate in Physics class. Dr. O’Hara was a person of interest because he could very well be Henry’s biological father. It also meant that Henry could have a half-sister. While the two families eventually met, it was strange that the material never became all that interesting. More people spoke but their words held little weight. More people took up space in each scene but there was no comedy or drama. Everything was just passive as if each character was simply sleepwalking through this amazing thing that was unfolding right before their eyes. My biggest frustration, character-wise, was that Patricia and Dr. O’Hara were supposed to be smart adults. Why not just sit down and ask each other the difficult but necessary questions in order them–and us–to be able to move on? How did they really feel, as parents and as single adults, about being thrusted into such an awkward situation? These questions, among others, needed to be addressed because although its narrative was so twee to the point of distraction, their world was rooted in reality. Since those questions were essentially overlooked, why make the movie in the first place? If its point was to be cute, I could very much have just gone to the park and played with cute dogs. At least I would’ve gotten fresh air. As for Henry, because the character was established so poorly, whenever he stood next to Audrey with her bright red hair, big dark eyes, and undisturbed solemnity, he disappeared. His genius meant nothing because he had no presence. “Jesus Henry Christ” made me want to shout profanities at it because about halfway through I began to feel like my time was being stolen and trampled on.
Beautiful Boy (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Kate (Maria Bello) and Bill (Michael Sheen) were about to get a divorce. They lived in the same house, able to carry on a conversation, though nothing deep, eat at the same table, but couldn’t bear to sleep on the same bed. When their eighteen-year-old son, Sammy (Kyle Gallner), called from college one night, it was a final contact. The next morning, Kate and Bill found out that their beloved son had killed over a dozen of his fellow students and, eventually, himself. Written by Michael Armbruster and Shawn Ku, directed by the latter, “Beautiful Boy” worked both as a life-changing tragedy and as a marriage drama, which was interesting because there was not one image of Sammy using a gun was ever shown. Instead, the picture focused on how the couple reacted to the news which was heartbreaking to the say the least. The bereaved questioned themselves what they did or didn’t do as parents to have raised such a depressed child who eventually gathered so much rage and alienation. Kate hated the fact that Bill was always emotionally unavailable due to the nature of his work, while Bill begrudged Kate for picking at every single flaw whether it was about a household item or person with feelings. But in my opinion, neither of them, as well as the real families of those teens who went on a rampage in their high school and college campuses, was to blame. Sometimes kids just can’t cope and their decision to allow others to feel their pain is beyond explanation. Though their action begs for a sound reason, no amount of psychology is good enough to ameliorate the grief of everyone involved, directly or indirectly, at least for the time being. The first year of university and being hundreds of miles away from home is difficult. I know this from personal experience and I believe that the film, in only two or three scenes, captured the yearning of physical contact while parents and their child conversed via telephone. Like most people, I was able to get through the demanding first year by making new friends, being open to new experiences, embracing changes, but still staying true to who I thought I was. College students break down more often than most people would probably like to think. And it’s not just those who flunk out. Just because a student is still in school, it does not mean that the student is necessarily healthy. A whole lot of students engage in reckless casual sex as a substitute for real connection, some decide to stay in bed all day and neglect hygiene altogether, others take refuge in the party scene and drown their problems with alcohol, a handful try to overcompensate and take on more responsibilities than they can handle. I know because I’ve known and lived with those kinds of behavior. The very few who go on a shooting rampage, in my opinion, is an extreme form of that behavioral (and most likely hormonal) imbalance. That’s what they are to me: behavior. Behavior does not necessarily (nor accurately) define a person. That’s what I believed the film tried to communicate about tragedy by allowing us to watch Bill and Kate to try to make it through one day at a time. It managed to do so in an elegant, contemplative way sans judgment.
Twilight Saga: New Moon, The (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I cannot believe I saw this in theaters considering I wasn’t that impressed with the first “Twilight” film. However, since my expectations were low, I’m happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed (but I wasn’t happy about it either). I expected a mediocre outcome and got just that. Chris Weitz directed the second installment of the highly popular franchise. He tried to balance Bella’s (Kirsten Stewart) depression when Edward (Robert Pattinson) decided to break up with her due to an incident during her eighteenth birthday and Bella’s attempt at recovery when she finally got the chance to get to know Jacob (Taylor Lautner) who saw her as a romantic interest. And that was pretty much what the whole movie was about because I felt like this was more of a transition than anything. With that said, I found that this movie had no reason to be over two hours long. There were far too many scenes when Edward and Bella would talk and circumvent the main point they wanted to get across. For me, the sexual tension that worked in the first film simply wasn’t there anymore. Simply saying, “I cannot live without you” over and over is simply not good enough. In fact, I hated it when Bella and Edward were alone together because I knew I would hear an extended conversation that lacked gravity. On the other hand, I was interested in Bella and Jacob’s blossoming friendship. There was a certain brother-sister connection there even though Jacob wanted Bella romantically (and not the other way around). I was also happy with the new characters that involved a vampire royalty called the Volturi (mainly Michael Sheen, Dakota Fanning). I completely bought that they were menacing, powerful and very unstable group of vampires. One of the many ways this movie would’ve been more entertaining was having more action scenes. I loved the scenes that involved the diabolical Victoria (Rachelle Lefevre). Even though she barely said a word, her presence was mysterious and posed as a real threat. Granted, the film was based on Stephenie Meyer’s novel so it had plot limitations that were strictly designed for this sequel. However, there’s a certain way–an elegance, confidence, and ability to take risks–to make those limitations work for this project but I felt like it didn’t even try. With a much bigger budget than its predecessor, it should have been that much better, bigger in scope and more urgent. Regardless, I’m still curious with how the story would play out in the future installments especially with the way they ended this one. I cannot believe I said (more like yelled) “What?!” out loud when a certain line was said and it cut to the end credits. The fans of the novel probably looked at me and wondered why I watched the movie before I read the book.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I’m not going to judge this film with regards to whether or not it followed real life (which it didn’t in some parts) because it was based on a play by Peter Morgan. Michael Sheen stars as David Frost, a British television host who one day decides that he’s going to interview Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). Of course, that decision isn’t as easy as it sounds because he has to have the right amount of funds, gather the right people for research and risk his entire career. The drama prior to the scenes before the interviews was really effective because it solidifies the idea that Frost will be utterly finished if the people do not get what they want from Nixon: remorse with regards to his actions while being the President of the United States, admittance that he did participate in a number of cover-ups and that he did, in fact, abuse his power while leading the country. Sheen was very effective as Frost because even though he’s outgoing, charismatic and enthusiastic enough to tackle such a political issue, we feel for him whenever he is pushed in a corner like a mouse because he simply lacks the experience of interviewing a person of Nixon’s caliber. Langella was quite impressive as well. At first I was skeptical on why he was nominated for Best Actor but after watching this picture, I knew that he deserved it. He may not look like Nixon but he convinced me that he was powerful, intimidating and extremely intelligent. I loved those scenes when he would play mind games with Sheen; though those scenes were really serious, I felt that Langella was having a great time as an actor. To feel that resonance while also being invested in what was happening on screen, to me, means the mark of a great actor. Aside from the two leads, I also enjoyed watching Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, Sam Rockwell as James Reston, Jr. and Rebecca Hall as Caroline Cushing. Directed by Ron Howard, “Frost/Nixon” is a classic David vs. Goliath story. Although I was a blown away by the script because of its sharpness and wit, I was more impressed with its efficiency as it tackled the important questions while painting complex characters worthy of in-depth analysis. I’m glad this was nominated for Best Picture in 2008.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)
★ / ★★★★
I don’t find any good reason for this film to have been made. From beginning to end, I found the story uninteresting, the characters were one-dimensional, the special and visual effects were nothing extraordinary, and the pacing was very slow to the point of boredom. I don’t know how Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen got mixed up in this terrible mess. This prequel to the first “Underworld” installment was about how the Lycans/werewolves got the upperhand over the aristocratic vampires (led by Nighy). That’s pretty much it, really. For an hour and thirty minutes, they showed the romance between a Lycan (Sheen) and a vampire (Rhona Mitra), while also giving audiences one senseless action scene after another. It got exhausting really quickly and I lost interest twenty minutes into the picture. The only reason why I think this sequel was made was because the first two “Underworld” movies were successful. Having realized that success, the studios wanted more money even though they knew that the script was dead on arrival. One of my biggest problems was Nighy’s “moral dilemma” when he found out that his daughter has been sleeping with a werewolf. The movie tries to show that he cares for his daughter by looking agonized and sad in an empty room after he decides that she should be punished. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes (and laugh–or was it scoff?–a bit inside) because if he really did care for his daughter, since he’s the leader of the vampires and as a father who genuinely loves his daughter, he would do anything in his power to make her happy. Instead, I saw him as this tyrant who loves power more than his daughter; he deserves to fall hard on his face and suffer in every possible way. I felt like the director (Patrick Tatopoulos) and writers (Danny McBride and Dirk Blackman) thought that the audiences are stupid. It’s insulting in the least. Please avoid this mess of a movie at all cost.