REVIEW: “Apostle” (2018)

ApostleBIG

Exploring the world of Netflix Originals can be a fascinating experience. You never quite know what you’re going to get. That especially holds true for their forays into the horror genre. Their new film “Apostle” definitely lands among the stronger titles in their Originals spectrum. Not only that, but it offers up something the horror genre has been in desperate need of – originality.

“Apostle” is written and directed by Gareth Evans best known for his Indonesian martial arts film “The Raid” and its sequel. “Apostle” is a much different venture, not just in terms of genre but with its setting and narrative style. Evans builds his story slowly while constantly giving us small bites of revelation. When the veil is finally dropped and the dots begin to connect, Evans lets loose his Victorian-era horror which is both gruesome and unpredictable.

Apostle1

The film opens with one of the most striking shots I’ve seen all year as a train curls around a large body of water. The camera moves across the surface before resting at the edge of the tracks just as the train speeds by. Aboard is Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), a disillusioned and tortured ex-missionary whose opium addiction is all that keeps his sanity intact.

Through a troubling letter Thomas gets word that his sister has been kidnapped by a mysterious cult demanding a ransom. He secretly infiltrates the cult’s ranks to discover his sister’s whereabouts. Even before he sets foot in the isolated island commune led by the charismatic ‘prophet’ Malcolm (Michael Sheen) we get the sense that something is not quite right. This dark and unsettling cloud looms over the entire film.

Stevens’ signature intensity and perpetual razor-sharp focus makes him a good fit for both phases of this story. The first being his arrival on the island and his subsequent investigation. The second which sends things plummeting into the macabre. Stevens gives an uneasy and off-kilter portrayal of a nervously determined man facing darkness both inside and out. It’s a role with a physical and psychological edge to it.

Apostle2

The film’s visual composition is rich with indelible imagery ranging from beautiful to bleak. Evans and cinematographer Matt Flannery use the camera to accentuate the wickedly tense tone while carefully capturing a good sense of period and place. And rarely has a camera better captured a sense of terror. It is only enhanced when teamed up with Fajar Yusekemal and Aria Prayogi’s nerve-shredding score (perhaps the most evocative I’ve heard this year).

“Apostle” is an enthralling and imaginative slice of folk horror that exchanges cheap jump scares for an unrelenting dread. It should be said that this is not a film for the squeamish. The deeper we get into Evans’ fascinating mythology the more brutal and gory things become. The blood-soaked and metaphorically charged second half is sure to leave some squirming in their seats. But it’s fitting in this examination of oppression under the guise of religion and the costs of misguided faith. It also reveals that it is man who often shows himself to be the cruelest among all creatures.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Hate U Give”

hateposter

There seems to be a new wave of movies dealing with one of the hot button social issues of our day – police brutality. It’s an important issue but one often caught up in the mire of politics and emotion. Strong feelings on both sides often lead to the conversation spiraling away from the meat of the matter and into frivolous side debates.

Sometimes what we need is a pointed yet levelheaded examination. For the most part that is what we get in director George Tillman Jr’s “The Hate U Give”, a film adapted from Angie Thomas’ young adult novel of the same name. Without question “The Hate U Give” is looking at its issues from a specific point of view, but that doesn’t undercut the relevance of what it has to say nor does it negate the power with which it says it.

hate2

In what should be a star-making performance, Amandla Stenberg plays Starr Carter. She’s a bit of a chameleon, taking on different personas in the two worlds she occupies. During the day she is one of the only African-American kids in her mostly white private prep school. While there she hides anything that may hint at where she is from. And where is she from? The lower income and predominantly black neighborhood of Garden Heights where she back-pockets and keeps quiet about her school life especially her white boy friend Chris (KJ Apa).

Keeping her two worlds apart is the easiest thing for Starr, but it’s not without complications. A portion of the movie deals with her bouncing between cultures and finding it hard to fit into either. For Starr it becomes about putting off the facades, discovering who she is, and finding her own distinct voice. Unfortunately the catalyst for Starr’s evolution is a senseless act of violence.

Hate3

At a late night party in Garden Heights Starr bumps into childhood friend and first crush Khalil (Algee Smith). After gunfire rings out, Kahlil helps Starr out of the party and drives her home. On the way they are pulled over by a patrolman for a lane violation. Minutes later the cop panics, an unarmed Khalil lay shot to death, and Starr is the lone witness.

News of the tragedy reverberates throughout the community, the city, and eventually the nation. Starr’s father Maverick (a terrific Russell Hornsby) wants her to use her voice regardless of her apprehensions. Starr’s mother (an equally good Regina Hall) wants her to stay quiet fearing the repercussions of the spotlight. As Starr is torn between defending her friend and protecting her family, others unknowingly treat her like a pawn for their own agendas. It makes finding her voice even more of a struggle.

Hate4

While police brutality is the film’s central topic, it explores a host of other racial and socioeconomic issues. It looks at urban poverty, profiling, drug dealing, protesting, among several other things. Screenwriter Audrey Wells (who sadly died earlier this month) leans on her big lot of characters to explore these subjects. The characters are a strength and even the smallest are authentic and believable pieces of the story. There are a couple exceptions. Her white friends from school often come across as clichés intended to move the narrative in certain directions. And I loved Anthony Mackie as a local gang leader and drug pusher. He is intense and menacing but too often relegated to giving intimidating stares from a distance.

George Tillman Jr. works with a lot of moving parts and manages them with an able hand. He tells a good story while only occasionally dipping too far into melodrama. His movie is very open about about its feelings which is to its credit. At the same time its earnestness occasionally leads the film to paint in broad strokes and dabble in generalizations. But those instances are rare. Ultimately “The Hate U Give” is a film that speaks its mind but does so with optimism. The filmmakers want to make a difference and they truly believe their film can help do so.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “First Man”

FirstPostersmall

As “La La Land” showed us Ryan Gosling and Damien Chazelle have a pretty strong actor/director chemistry. They attempt to tap into it once again with “First Man”, a biopic of the late Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. The film has received critical acclaim throughout the festival circuit but also faced a bit of undeserved controversy over the decision to not show the iconic planting of the American flag on the moon’s surface.

The film is an adaptation of James Hanson’s 2005 biography “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong”. Clint Eastwood was the first to show interest in making the movie, planning to both produce and direct the film for Warner Bros. But it soon fell into ‘development hell’ before being resuscitated by Universal and Dreamworks. Screenwriter Josh Singer (who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “Spotlight”) writes the script with Chazelle directing. Talk about an exciting combination.

 

First Man

“First Man” comes at Neil Armstrong’s life from an interesting angle. It covers roughly 8 years, from his time as a NASA test pilot to his historic Apollo 11 moon landing. But the film’s main focus is on the man himself and it views most things through a very personal lens. And even though we get a look into Armstrong’s life, by the end of the film he remains a bit of an enigma although an intensely sympathetic one. I loved that about the movie.

I’ve always found there to be a dryness to Ryan Gosling’s acting and it’s the material that often dictates the effectiveness of his performances. He turns out to be a perfect fit for Neil Armstrong, portrayed here as a humble man of few words who feels as distant and unexplored as the space outside our atmosphere. Gosling’s consistent restraint only adds to his character’s complexity. It’s through Chazelle’s camera (often in tight closeups of Gosling’s face) that we get clues to what Armstrong is feeling. Meaningful subtleties in Gosling’s expressions portray grief, fear, determination, even exhilaration.

Chazelle has shown a fascination with the idea of obsession. In “Whiplash” it was with drumming. In “La La Land” is was with jazz. Armstrong’s obsession is with his work but it’s rooted in something deeper. Very early in the film Neil and his wife Janet (a terrific Claire Foy) lose their 2-year-old daughter Karen to cancer. That shadow looms over the entire film as Neil buries himself in his work to keep from dealing with his loss. It’s what drives his determination.

First2

At the same time it adds an undeserved burden on Janet. A huge chunk of the film looks at the domestic side of Armstrong’s life. These scenes are far more than emotional filler. They show us the flip-side of Neil’s sorrow-fueled obsession. Foy is nothing short of superb here – showing Janet as supportive of her husband but slowly losing patience with his detachment. At the same time she lives under the constant fear that her husband could die on any given day.

In one of my favorite choices, Chazelle shoots the space sequences almost exclusively from the astronaut’s perspectives, avoiding the grand effects-driven spectacles we might expect. These scenes are sensory experiences, relying on movement, sound, and a camera that is mostly inside the tight confined cockpits with the astronauts. These scenes are intensely claustrophobic and relay the sense of tension and danger.

Look no further than the incredible opening sequence. During a test flight Neil finds his X-15 “bouncing off the earth’s atmosphere” before bursting back through and landing in the Mojave Desert. It’s a pulse-pounding scene of roaring engines, whirling gauges and fiercely vibrating metal. The mix of sound and close-quartered cameras is a good primer for the bigger sequences to come.

First3

Of course one of those scenes the film’s big finale. In one of the biggest non-spoiler spoilers Neil Armstrong does indeed walk on the moon. The brilliant final 20 minutes features the same stressful ferocity but also a striking use of silence. The scene is the closest the film comes to giving us an emotional release and offers new meaning to Neil’s iconic first steps on the moon. Chazelle doesn’t romanticize these moments. They are intimate and personal which I believe invalidates the entire flag “controversy”. But for those still unconvinced, we do get shots of the flag on the moon and in numerous other places around the movie.

While Gosling and Foy are the stars there is a wonderful supporting cast that help fill out their story – Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Ciarán Hinds and a host of other recognizable faces and good performances.

There are so many other things I love about “First Man”. I love Chazelle faithful Justin Hurwitz’s score which truly came alive after a second viewing. I love that the film doesn’t feel the need to hold our hand and explain every detail of the science or technology. I love that this reluctant hero is portrayed as a human being and not a pop culture icon. I love its apolitical focus which seems consistent with the astronauts who isolated themselves from the culture to focus on their missions. But most of all I love that it makes its own rules when it comes to storytelling. This is what happens when a biopic doesn’t cater to formula or expectations. The results are magnificent.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Venom”

Venomposter

“Venom” had two encouraging things going for it since its initial announcement. First it stars Tom Hardy, an actor I’ve really liked since his 2001 debut in Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down”. Second, it features a truly great Marvel comic book villain (and eventual antihero) with a compelling backstory and formidable superpowers. Those are two big steps in the right direction.

Does Sony Pictures make the most of Hardy and the titular title character? It seems critics would say no as most have panned the film. Moviegoers seem to have had a different reaction, not being nearly as harsh and having helped the film rake in $205 million globally on its opening weekend. Let’s say I fall somewhere in the middle.

Venom2

Versions of “Venom” have been in the works since 1997, but this particular iteration had its own set of challenges. Fans of the character will immediately notice how far the movie strays from his comic book origins. The filmmakers aren’t entirely to blame. Sony’s deal with Marvel Studios to allow Spider-Man into their carefully guarded MCU handcuffed the writers forcing them to create a webslinger-free origin. Interestingly they did shelf the idea of an R-rating leaving the door open for a potential crossover.

Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a Bay Area investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering deep-seated corruption. He sets his sights on the Life Foundation and its CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Turns out Drake has discovered and captured samples of splotchy alien lifeforms he calls symbiotes. Eddie gets a whiff of potential human testing and confronts Drake during an on-air interview. It goes bad for Eddie who loses his job and even his fiancé (Michelle Williams) who works as a Life Foundation attorney.

Venom3

Six months pass and a down-on-his-luck Eddie is contacted by a Life Foundation scientist begging him to blow the lid off Drake’s experiments. While secretly infiltrating the labs Eddie is exposed to the symbiote which instantly gives him superpowers and a gruesome appetite for violence and human heads. Check that, it isn’t Eddie who has those appetites. They belong to his new parasitic alter-ego Venom.

From there the movie becomes a weird blend of horror and humor set within the framework of a superhero movie. I kind of like what it’s going for even if its tone can be wildly uneven. Eddie’s back-and-forths with the menacing Venom voice in his head can be amusing. There is also the intriguing duality of two distinct characters warring within one man. The film flirts with the idea more than exploring it which seems like a missed opportunity.

Venom4

This is also where the action amps up but not in a particularly thrilling or impressive way. Most of it is encapsulated in the trailer – a big chase sequence in downtown San Francisco and several fight scenes featuring a reluctant Eddie and the more violent Venom’s stretchy tentacles. It all culminates in a CGI-soaked finale that doesn’t do the movie any favors.

Tom Hardy does his best to bring energy and nuance to his character. It’s a good performance with several interesting layers. Director Ruben Fleischer clearly wanted to make an atypical superhero movie with a distinct edge to it. I applaud that aim and see glimpses of what he’s going for. But ultimately it’s the script and some pretty uninspired action the left me feeling a bit deflated. Sadly a good Tom Hardy, Fleisher’s edgy ambition, or even a killer end credits scene can’t quite keep “Venom” from disappointing.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “A Star is Born” (2018)

StarPOSTER

There is nothing glaringly new about Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” aside from some fresh new faces and a weird affection for F-bombs. It’s a movie that has been done three previous times – in 1937, 1954, and 1976. Collectively those three earlier versions earned a total of 17 Oscar nominations. So Cooper picked a story with a history of Awards attention and by the sounds of it that trend is continuing. Many have already christened Cooper’s directorial debut the greatest thing since sliced bread.

First things first, Cooper shows himself to be a more than capable director. His pacing is good even at 135 minutes. He shows off an undeniably keen eye when shooting the musical numbers. He wastes no time putting together the central relationship and he smartly keeps his focus in the right places. Although you could question the decision to shift that focus in the final third of the movie.

STAr1

It takes less than 15 minutes for the two lead characters to meet. Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a bonafide star selling out venues across the country. Packed in with his years of stardom is his unshakable alcohol and drug abuse. After a big show and fresh out of booze, Jackson stumbles into a bar on drag night looking for a drink. Singing that evening is Ally (Lady Gaga), a waitress and aspiring yet insecure singer/songwriter. After one verse of “La Vie en rose” Jackson is hooked and as the title suggests a star is born.

It doesn’t take long to recognize the sharp chemistry between Cooper and Gaga. The movie’s first half is its strongest as their relationship begins to take form and Ally’s star begins its meteoric rise. Cooper and his co-writers Eric Roth and Will Fetters rightly make Gaga the highlight, giving her plenty of chances to show off some surprisingly good acting chops and of course a brilliant singing voice. There is nothing particularly mind-blowing about her handling of dialogue. Her real strength is in her ability to express whether it be specific looks or a pinpoint gesture. Cooper seems to know this. His camera will often sit on her, many times in closeup. It’s a smart move.

STAR2

While Gaga is getting most of the attention Cooper’s performance is equally impressive, a bit mannered but more often instinctive. His disheveled look and gravelly voice speak to a character worn down by his personal excesses and painful past. Most of that past is revealed through scenes with his older brother/manager/chaperone Bobby. He’s played by the wonderfully rugged and always good Sam Elliott. And in the final act when Jack takes centerstage (for better or worse), Cooper’s performance maintains a steady authenticity. He’s also no slouch when it comes to singing.

And of course that leads to the musical numbers, a central component sure to sell a ton of soundtracks and dominate its category come awards season. Many are shot with such energy and emotion, none better than the signature song “Shallow”. Not only is it the film’s best sequence, it’s one of the year’s very best scenes. From the exciting buildup to the powerful heart-melting crescendo, it’s impossible to watch without a tear running down your cheek. Even the final song (a bit on the nose but sure to tug at the heartstrings of its target audience) is full of heart and leans on Gaga’s dynamic and soulful voice.

STAR3

Ally connects with an agent (Rafi Gavron) who packages her and launches her career. At the same time Jack watches his career crumble under the weight of his personal demons. But their relationship remains front and center. Unfortunately there are a few too many gaps in Jack and Ally’s romance. There is also some unresolved and pretty significant business the end of the movie fails to address. I wouldn’t call it an essential plot piece but it deserved a resolution. Still, it’s hard to deny what Cooper and Gaga bring to the screen. And stellar supporting work from Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, and Dave Chappelle doesn’t hurt.

While the story of “A Star is Born” may be familiar, there are enough good choices from Bradley Cooper to make his version of this ‘oft told tale’ feel fresh. Perhaps the smartest decision is not making this telling about bitter jealousy. One star still launches while the other plummets, but here we see deeper and more personal poisons working against them. It’s the more personal angle which makes this imperfect but rousing crowd-pleaser stand out from its three predecessors.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Nun”

nunPoster

“The Nun” marks the fifth film in the Conjuring ‘universe’ and the third backstory spin-off. “The Conjuring” and its direct sequel remain two of my favorite horror films of the last several years. The first spin-off was the dull mess-of-a-movie “Annabelle”. The prequel to “Annabelle” was a good step in the right direction.

That brings us back to “The Nun”, an installment with clear connections to the franchise that are actually cooler and more clever than the movie itself. What do I mean by that? The film’s links to “The Conjuring 2” are surprising and clever. But as a movie, “The Nun” fails to make the most of those connections. And despite putting some interesting pieces into place, it ends up suffering due to unremarkable storytelling that consistently milks the same handful of horror tricks.

Nun1

Things start out promising. In 1952 at a remote mountain abbey in Romania a nun hangs herself. The Vatican gets word of the tragedy and sends a tortured priest (Demián Bichir) who specializes in ‘miracle hunting’ to investigate. He is accompanied by a young novitiate (Taissa Farmiga in a nifty bit of casting). The two are guided to the abbey by the French farmer (Jonas Bloquet) who discovered the nun’s body. As you can probably guess they discover a devilish presence in the black heart of the abbey. It’s Valak, the demon nun introduced in “The Conjuring 2”.

The film is directed by relative newcomer Corin Hardy and written by Gary Dauberman, writer of the previous two “Annabelle” pictures. They have no problem developing their haunting setting and creating a ton of atmosphere. The gothic abbey with its long stone hallways, deep shadowy corners, and overactive fog machine offers up a spooky old-fashioned horror environment.

Nun2

But then you get to the storytelling which slowly sucks out the film’s potential. There is an unnerving story here but it is never allowed to play out. Instead we get most of it through clumsy dumps of exposition. Also, the film doesn’t lean on the Valak character as much as it should. She/It isn’t really let loose until the final 15 minutes which is a little too late. Instead the bulk of the scares are tried-and-not-so-true horror gadgetry that we’ve seen many times before. And how many times can you show a shadowy silhouette of a nun doing creepy things in the background before it loses its effect?

So “The Nun” qualifies as a dissapointment for a couple of reasons. First, I’m a fan of James Wan’s unorthodox horror universe but this film doesn’t offer a particularly good new installment. Second, because the pieces are here for a fun classic-styled horror picture but the filmmakers never put those pieces together in a satisfying way. The story ideas, the cool connections to the main Conjuring films, and a genuinely frightening antagonist should have been enough for a good franchise entry.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars