Binge Review 6: Apostle

One of the drawbacks of Netflix is the sheer amount of content that becomes available on a monthly basis. I know the site excises shows and movies on the regular, but the volume of present media is so enormous, a lot of the new stuff gets lost in the shuffle. Of course, there is advertising to consider, but for some reason, I had no idea that one of the dozen films I have anticipated this year came out two weeks ago.

Apostle is directed by Gareth Evans, the man behind the amazing Raid movies. To my knowledge this is his first English language film and a dramatic departure from his previous work. Instead of another visceral action thriller, we get a macabre horror movie. Taking place in the early 20th Century we follow Thomas, played by Dan Stevens, who travels to an island to rescue his sister from a cult. As he investigates her whereabouts, Thomas unravels the dark mystery behind the cult’s beliefs.

From the outset Apostle is obvious about its macabre nature. Livestock is sacrificed, people are butchered, and others bleed themselves into jars. The film has no illusions about what it is; it knows you have seen Wicker Man or read Shadow Over Innsmouth, two of its biggest influences. Even the three main leaders of the cult are open about the faults in their beliefs like they are critiquing the script. What makes the movie stand apart from its artistic peers is how it handles these ideas.

The real truth behind what is going on is kept in the dark until roughly three-quarters in. The build up is focused on establishing a sense of relative unease. You understand the cult’s island community is oppressed and on the verge of collapse. The people are doing weird things to themselves and each other and it is difficult to figure if what is going on is supernatural. Given how the leaders are charlatans in way over their heads, you cannot tell if they are scamming people or it is real.

The horror elements are both kept to a minimum and saved for later. At first Apostle is very bloody with people cutting themselves or getting cut. What it means I cannot give away, but it does a great job of setting up what is to come. Even when the gore grows more intense it is not overtly emphasized like torture porn. Actual physical violence, however, is blatant and does not shy away from brutality. With Evans’ action background, these scenes are shown with visceral flair, compounded by the fact all the characters use knives.

Of the performances Stevens is the best. From The Guest to Legion, the man is a practiced character actor that steals the show. In every scene he sells Thomas’s pain and anguish from past trauma written on his face and in his actions without over doing it. Michael Sheen and Mark Lewis Jones provide great support as two of the cult leaders. The former tries to keep everything together while the latter is a loose cannon tired of playing second banana. Jones was also the admiral in the opening of Last Jedi and the voice of Letho in the Witcher games. Thought I should mention that if he seems familiar to you.

Apostle was a pleasant surprise. Being such a departure from his previous work, Evans could have mishandled this and trashed his career with only two other features to his name. In a world saturated in content and a lack of quality horror films, Apostle is just what we need. If you have Netflix, give it a watch. It is also makes for a great Halloween movie and I am going to watch it a second time.

Movie Review: Mother!

Darren Aronofsky is a pretty good director. The Fountain is one of my favorites, Noah is rather under appreciated, and I have yet to see Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. It is hard to put my finger on it because I am not expert, but the man knows how to put together a beautiful picture. He has a very well defined visual style in service to his films’ dreamlike atmosphere, regardless if they are fantastical or realistic. Mother! seems like a departure from his previous work, taking place in a small enclosed space with a strong feeling of claustrophobia. Was this a good change of pace or should you watch The Fountain again?

While trying to settle into their tranquil life, Him and Mother are visited by a mysterious couple looking for a place to stay at their home in the wilderness. It does not take long for the situation to spiral out of control as more and more guests come to the house.

Mother! is not a logical movie by any means, following Aronofsky’s dreamlike aesthetic from start to finish. You have to suspend your disbelief the whole way through because everything from the acting to the set is symbolic. Nitpickers will lose their mind in Lovecraftian insanity trying to understand this film with a logic that does not exist.

I will say, before I get into spoilers, that Mother! is a rare gem of horror. It touches a part of you that no jump-scare or creepy monster can ever hope to. It is something that pokes at your psyche, that awakens a fear and anxiety that most movies cannot, especially those of today. It is a deeply disturbing film and I recommend it completely, but get ready because it goes from one to HOLY SHIT very quickly.

Now onto spoilers:

The story is a retelling of the Bible. It starts at Genesis, then Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, the Flood, Crucifixion (you have no idea), and ends with Armageddon. It skips over certain details and I may have missed some things, but each character represents a key player in those stories with an interesting twist. Following the trend set in Noah, Aronofsky combines environmentalism and Abrahamic spirituality into one.

Javier Bardem plays God and he lives in a house, the World, built by Mother (Earth), played by Jennifer Lawrence. The house is Eden with everything the two of them could want. When God lets in Man and Woman, played Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, the house and Mother slowly deteriorate both physically and mentally. It is only after Man and Woman are cast out that things begin to improve, Mother becoming pregnant with His child, Jesus. Before the child is born, Him becomes more popular among new people, and they start to worship him.

That is as far as I will get with the narrative. You really have to experience first hand the horror and anxiety of the situation that follows and how Aronofsky interprets the latter events of the Bible.

Mother! is as much an art-piece as it is a think-piece. The way it is shot, the visuals, and acting lend themselves to the study of the relationship between God, the world, and humanity. When the worshipers come into the house, they destroy, and steal things without regard for Mother’s pleas. They abuse her environment because Him told them everything is to be shared and he loves them. It gets to a point where the house becomes a war-zone as soldiers, an allegory for the Romans (apt), kill the worshipers until there is relative peace.

I cannot recall the exact line, but when Mother asks why Him let the people destroy her world, his answer has a lot to say on the relationship between Man and God. Why do we exist and why does God need to be worshipped if he can do whatever he wants? Does he enjoy that we destroy everything he gave us in his name? Does he admire our devotion in the face of chaos and terror? Like I said, I cannot remember the line, but when it came up I was struck with questions of Man’s purpose. It is the oldest question in the book and Mother! tries to divine the answer through symbolism.

Then there is a question of spirituality and the world. The term “worldly” refers to things that are only temporary like sex, money, and possessions. Many faiths argue that you need to let go of worldly things to focus on the spiritual in the name of a higher power. When the worshippers destroy Mother’s house, it shows they care more about the spiritual than the environment in which they subsist, devoting their entire being to Him. This idea is striking because many Christians believe we do not need to protect the world or take care of ourselves because Jesus will return in the Second Coming and remake the world after Armageddon.

So far 2017 has been a pretty good year for horror. It Comes at Night, Split, and It have been exceptional in a time when the genre is in dire straits. Mother! takes it a few steps further by making you think while trying to disturb you. Believe the hype, ignore the critics, and buy a ticket.

Movie Review: It

I was 11 when I first saw the It mini series from 1990. My cousin or whatever had a VHS copy that we watched in his parent’s basement. He told me it would give me nightmares and my reaction when the credits rolled was “Wow, what a piece of shit.” Tim Curry’s amazing performance aside, the series is not great or scary. It was three hours of decent kid actors and awful adult actors being afraid of a clown with Rachel Dolezal hair, trolling at them with balloons. It did not help that the series was cheap as dirt and all of the characters were walking tropes. They were either bullied, abused, damaged or a stand-in for the author, and they needed to stick together because there is power in friendship. Am I watching a shounen anime or a Stephen King adaptation? Maybe because clowns were never that frightening I could not feel the fear, but I would rather sit through quality horror than Z-tier trash. And because the It mini series was an objectively bad adaptation, the movie remake falls perfectly in line with my rules. Was the film a vast improvement or somehow worse?

After a series of child abductions in the town of Derry, a group of friends realize they have had shared encounters with a spectral clown named Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgard, that may be behind the disappearances. While investigating the monster they find it has a dark and lengthy history associated with the town.

Picture Stranger Things with an R rating and you get the It movie. It takes the kid adventure concept, pioneered by Stephen King and many 80’s films (Goonies, Monster Squad, etc), and turns it into a nightmare. It is more or less an ensemble where the fears of each kid plays into their shared goal of defeating the monster. It can become your worst nightmare made manifest and a part of their journey is overcoming what they are afraid of.

However, most of the film is focused on the kids’ friendship, and it would not have worked without great writing and acting. I cannot imagine how difficult it was to get the cast to seamlessly gel together. Everyone is their character in the purest sense, rolling with it from start to finish. Finn Wolfhard’s Ritchie and Jack Dylan Grazer’s Eddie work the best, berating and insulting one another like they’ve known each other for years. Then there is the love triangle between Bill and Ben in pursuit of Bev, played by Sophia Lillis. She is probably the standout with a ton of emotion and subtlety in her performance that will go a long way if she does not crash and burn like most child actors.

The relationship and interactions between the kids is enough to warrant admission. They carry the film like it is Tuesday and it also just happens to be rather decent horror. The jump-scares can be annoying if you hate them as much as I, but the grotesque imagery is significantly more palpable. The look of Pennywise when he transforms or contorts his body, his disguises, and hallucinations are genuinely frightening and well done. One disguise is an abstract woman with white eyes that is totally creepy, but the leper is worse.

Some of the effects-oriented horror is done practically, save for Pennywise’s monster teeth and the abstract woman, but the main issue I have is more in the execution. Loud noises and orchestra stings aside, the use of CG and weird editing drags down maybe a quarter of the scares. The abstract woman could have been done with prosthetics and the monster teeth with puppetry that was possible since the dawn of time. I do not know what it is called, but when Pennywise is charging the camera, it focuses on his face as he moves while the rest of the frame is blurred. It is like this scene from Fight Club or this from Catwoman and it was distracting. The scares would have been better if they saved the stings for after the reveal to let the audience react or take them out completely. Ambient noise and silence can go a long way; just look at It Follows and Silent Hill 2.

The last few issues with the It movie are three individual scenes. All of them are tone-deaf musical interludes that were very out of place. They happen in the midst of darkness, including a rock war after Mike sees Pennywise gnawing on a child’s severed arm, and Bev’s bloody bathroom followed by a clean-up montage. It is strange why these scenes were done this way because they take you right out of the moment. The rock war I can forgive, but the other two did not need to happen.

And now comes the most important question of all: how does Skarsgard compare to Curry’s iconic performance from the mini series? The dueling versions of Pennywise remind me a lot of Heath Ledger and Jarred Leto’s Jokers. Obviously there is only one that is great, but this time around the successor actually succeeds. Like Curry, Skarsgard uses his expressive features to his advantage, making wide toothy grins while bugging out his massive Rami Malik eyes. Unlike Curry he did not have much dialog, but focused more on using his physical presence than anything else. The guy is 6’3” in a giant costume, wearing a ton of make-up, and pulls it off in a way Curry and his legendary charisma could not. Skarsgard is physically scary where his predecessor was emotionally. I hope to see more of him in the future, especially as Pennywise.

Trying to be better than the It mini series may seem like punching a blind kid, but the remake had a lot to achieve. Other than be good the film needed to be scary and surpass or improve upon Tim Curry’s iconic performance, lest it fail. It is not just an improvement; it is a whole other animal. The chemistry and dialog of the ensemble, the horror-adventure concept, and Skarsgard’s Pennywise make it fun to watch. Honestly, it has been a while since I have felt this way in a movie. I wanted to see where it went and felt invested in the characters. Only once in a while do you get a film like this and Dunkirk in the same year. Regardless of how you feel about horror, go see it immediately.

Movie Review: It Comes at Night

June does not look good for movies. While Wonder Woman and It Comes at Night were the exception, the rest of the month is a no go for me. Cars 3 and Despicable Me 3 look like poison, Transformers 5 requires no explanation, and some true stories and comedies I do not want to see. Until Baby Driver comes out on the 29th, I will be ignoring everything else because Edgar Wright is a genius. I might see Megan Leavey because military and dogs. Was It Comes a good start to a dower month or should you see Wonder Woman again?

After an epidemic destroys civilization, a family out in the woods takes extra precautions to ensure their safety. Their simple lives turn upside down when they invite another family to stay with them.

Whatever you think It Comes is, you are wrong. The homeless-apocalypse has many tropes you can easily predict like its base genre, post-apocalypse. You know there is going to be dark subject matter and terrible things will happen to the characters. If you have seen The Road, read Walking Dead, or played The Last of Us, you have an idea of what will happen in It Comes and that is what the film is trying to do.

Paranoia plays a big part in the horror and setting. The virus in question is airborne and if you know anything about diseases, airborne is the worst. You can get it just by breathing or being near someone who is infected. Even then you cannot be sure if they are sick or if you are sick until you start showing symptoms. The characters know this and are well aware of the possibility of infection.

The conflicts deal with their survival and fear of getting sick. The characters stick to a schedule and rules that must be followed lest they risk death. Then they have to consider what other people will do to them in the event they are attacked. Many scenes are all about the characters questioning each other, arguing about breaking the rules, and trying to get a one up because they have no idea what the other group is trying to do. The individual conflicts would have been boring had the performance been less than stellar.

At the same time, as an audience member, you have your own expectations because you have seen movies. You have an inkling of what might happen and are constantly changing it up as the film progresses. In that way, It Comes puts you in the characters’ shoes. A hundred different things are going through their heads because they are so afraid and you are always thinking about what is going on. The movie is meta in this way because you are doing the same thing.

With small films it matters not the what, but the how. How movies are made is what sets them apart. While It Comes is not unlike your average post-apocalypse, it is made in a way that makes its special. The use of light and darkness is just incredible. In scenes of heavy blacks there is only one light source emanating from the characters. It conveys a sense of isolation that they experience living in such cramped quarters in the middle of nowhere. It also adds to the horror of not knowing what may be happening in the thick void around them.

It Comes at Night is borderline amazing. It is not the next best thing, but still impressive. As another annual good horror film following Witch from 2016, it does its job. It reaffirms my faith that not all contemporary horror movies are total trash and a select few creative people know what they are doing. I highly recommend giving it a look if you are a fan of the genre and post-apocalypse.

Movie Review: Alien: Covenant

I have no clue why everyone thought Prometheus was too complicated and vague to understand. Some people go to a planet to find the origin of humanity and stuff happens. That is it. There is nothing complex or too difficult to figure out on your own. A lot of it can be chalked up to assumption, but because no one likes to think anymore, they needed a Blu-ray release with deleted scenes that were not in the final cut for a reason.

The dumb criticism was the progenitor of contemporary nitpicking, where every lapse in logic must be explained, or no one will like your movie. People hate Prometheus but give a pass to Star Trek: Into Darkness because it explained its plot holes? Are you serious? However, there were questions that went unanswered. I for one would like to know what came of Shaw’s journey to meet the Engineers. Does Alien: Covenant answer these questions or is it actually terrible.

While on a colony mission, the crew of the Covenant receives a distress call from a nearby planet. After landing, they discover they should have left it alone.

Congratulations, everyone that thought Prometheus was terrible! You got exactly what you wanted: a two-dimensional sci-fi horror film that explains everything so your dumb asses know what is happening without challenging you in any way! You do not have to think because Covenant does it for you! There is no nuance like the theme of meeting your maker and the horror of finding them. No! It is the same shit you have seen before! Thanks for complaining Ridley Scott into submission, one of the most prolific directors in history, pricks!

Of course this all comes down to judging a movie based on what I want instead of what it is. I like Prometheus and I expected something of equal measure, something different from the traditional Alien formula. Judging Covenant as its own entity, however, does not change that it is not that great.

From the very beginning you know what is going to happen. Everyone is going to die, a thing you saw coming happens, followed by a twist that was set up an hour before. Where the Alien series was always a slasher movie in space, Covenant is a bad slasher movie in space. The characters are more disposable than a Red-Shirt and not worth consideration. I was not at all interested in their respective plights or lack thereof. When the characters died, my reaction was “Whose that?”

The only interesting character was David/Walter, played masterfully by Michael Fassbender. He had a personality and motive that was fascinating and I wanted to see more of him. I wanted to see where he would go and understand his reasoning. Everyone else was just along for the ride. The main protagonist is only memorable because of her hair. Billy Crudup’s character is so petty and pathetic I was waiting for him to die. The rest of the characters were just meat with dialog. At least Danny McBride tried and I remember him because he did things.

At that point it became a waiting game. I sat in my seat anticipating when people would buy it based on my experiences with horror and that is the problem. I had no clue what was going to happen in Prometheus and it surprised me. It was this story that was unique with complicated themes that could have led to anything. I wanted to see where it would go because it was different. In Covenant, you know exactly what is going to happen because it is so obvious. Had the emphasis been on David’s story, there would be no issue. Take out Alien in the title and it has more in common with a Sci-Fi Channel original movie.

Being a Ridley Scott film Covenant is very well made. Like Scorsese the man is old as dirt and has not lost his edge. The movie is beautifully bleak with real, lived in sets thanks to Scott’s admiration for the practical. I wish I could say the same for the Xenomorph CG. The pacing is excellent with plenty build up packed with underlining dread that felt genuine. It is unfortunate that the sum of the film’s parts is not enough to ignore its overall problems.

I recommend Alien: Covenant if you want to see more of the same. If you want to see a Xenomorph kill stupid characters and nothing else, look no further. It is unfortunate that David’s story, the best part, is such a small component. For the rest of us, re-watch Prometheus, Alien, and Aliens. Alien 3 is okay, but not that great if I am being honest. If you can turn your brain off, Alien: Resurrection is pretty good. It is basically Firefly with blood and guts. Look to the old; ignore the new.

Movie Review: Underworld: Blood Wars

A lot has been going on with my job that has affected my ability to write. Last week I watched and reviewed Silence in the span of two days in which I also worked 10 hours on 5 hours of sleep. Upon looking at the finished piece, I was not at all satisfied with what I had done. I believe I did not put forth as much effort as I used to in an attempt to reach a deadline and deal with fatigue. Silence was a beast of a movie and I feel I did not do it enough justice. For this reason, I have decided to increase my daylong review-delay to a whole week. This will eliminate the relevance factor, but at least I will be happy with the end result. Hopefully so will you. And now, here is why Underworld: Blood Wars sucks my balls.

After surviving the events of Awakening Selene, played by Kate Beckinsale, is pursued by Vampires and Lycans who want the location of her daughter to turn the tide of their eternal war.

There is a lot you can say about the Underworld series. They are a part of a dying breed of serious-ironic action movies that came about in the late 90s. Mummy, Pitch Black, and Resident Evil were totally ridiculous and stupid, but they knew it and were fun to watch. Underworld follows that same formula with very anime inspired elements that reveal series’ writer Kevin Grevioux to be a giant otaku. He clearly loves Vampire Hunter D and Hellsing (have you watched Ultimate yet?) and did his best to integrate similar concepts into his work.

Underworld also has cool ideas that evolved our understanding of the Vampire Mythos. As a student of microbiology and genetic engineering, Grevioux took the science of blood and applied it to movie monsters. He made vampirism and lycanthropy diseases spread through blood, genetic memories shared through its consumption, and because both kinds are changed in DNA, made their blood carriers of their powers, leading to the overarching Vampire/Lycan hybrids narrative.

Blood Wars uses those same ideas in service to the most technically horrendous film I have seen in years. I am baffled that it came from a major company and cost 35 million to make what amounts to an extended LARP campaign starring a bunch of Czechs with airsoft guns and terrible wigs. Putting aside story details that did not make sense and a magic bath of plot convenience (I am not joking), Blood Wars fails utterly on the technical front.

The editing is the chief flaw where whoever cut the film wanted to finish it as soon as possible. The opening in particular was jarring with flashes and black frames that punched me in the brain. What looked like a decent motorcycle chase was turned into hammered shit by an editor that did not care. Following the chase there was a conversation between two characters in a calm state and it was just as bad. When one finished their line, there was a very quick cut to the next character, followed by another cut until the scene was over. This bastardized editing continued throughout Blood Wars.

While a merciful 90 minutes, the editing makes the movie agonizing to sit through. Even without knowing how a film is supposed to be cut, a typical audience member knows what looks good and what looks bad. Blood Wars is technically bad even with the acceptable parts.

There is one scene that was so confounding I do not believe it was real. Perhaps I imagined this, but at the climax there is an extended sequence where two characters are staring at each other in slow motion, and their vocal gestures (grunts, sighs, and moans) are all you hear. It was like someone took all the groans from a terribly dubbed anime and put them together in a scene for no reason. Why it was included I have no idea because the film just moves on like it did not happen.

Other technical issues are peppered throughout. Similar digital effects were repeated in a couple scenes. There was also one shot of a car pulling up to a mansion that was used twice. Then there was Beckinsale’s narration at the beginning and end that explained things we already knew. For the fifth entry in the series, I doubt anyone in attendance does not know the backstory. It was worse at the end where she retells the movie, explaining the epilogue as it plays out on screen, and sets the stage for a sequel that will never happen.

Many of these issues could be attributed to the absence of Len Wiseman, who was involved in the series from the start. In fact, everyone from the previous movies was present in name only. Those guys knew exactly the kind of film they were making and put real effort into the production. What goes unnoticed is the horror atmosphere that went hand in hand with the action elements not unlike Mummy. Blood Wars tries to be all action and coupled with the horrible technical issues, negates any element of horror that could have elevated the material.

For all the bad there are some good things I feel are worth mentioning. The action scenes were okay and a little creative at the end where riot shields were included in an intense shootout. Charles Dance was a nice addition like his small role in Awakening before they killed him after 10 minutes of total screen time. Beckinsale was also great in a role she made her own. It is also important to note that she remains impeccable since the first movie 14 years ago. It is a shame she is not in more films that are actually good. And that is about it.

“Fuck You, It’s January” has officially begun. Underworld: Blood Wars is the epitome of studio apathy; a film no one wanted but they had it, and needed to recoup costs. I expect nothing less from Sony and this is not the end of their cinematic bowel movement. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, one of Underworld’s contemporaries, will close out the month in a grand finale of trash. Until then, I must dig deeper into this ever-growing landfill of movies.

Movie Review: Blair Witch

“Soft reboot” is a term coined by Red Letter Media in reference to sequels that continue the series while changing it completely. These films fall into a grey area where they are technically remakes, but also sequels. Therefore, I can watch them without breaking my no-remake rule. This month’s soft-reboot is Blair Witch, a follow-up to The Blair Witch Project from 1999. Did it have the same impact as its predecessor or do I regret my decision?

After new footage of his sister Heather in the Black Hills Forest surfaces online, James and a group of his friends decide to find her. In their search they are slowly driven insane by the woods.

Blair Witch lost me five minutes in when the characters were given an earpiece with a camera. There are only two real cameras and a drone and it was the dumbest. This is not found footage; this is a regular-ass movie, shot from multiple perspectives, and with normal editing. Every time there was a cut, I could tell the actors were passing around a real camera, saying their lines, and repeating the process before they had a complete scene. It is similar to how Unfriended was shot, but more blatantly produced.

What makes found footage great (when done right) is the feeling of a natural presentation. You are supposed to imagine what you are watching came from people that decided to film the world. It is an illusion with immersive qualities that put you in the shoes of the cameraman. However, when you have a dozen cameras, attached to more than one person, and very obvious production elements, you see right through the illusion.

Take for example Kenny Vs. Spenny, the best reality TV show ever made. The production used four cameras to film two guys in an apartment and it was more realistic than everything on American television. The small scale emphasized the two’s struggle of competition and the lack of major production elements made it believable. If Blair Witch Project is Kenny Vs. Spenny, then Blair Witch is Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Believe it or not, the abundance of production does not affect the horror because the horror is already stupid. Blair Witch Project is scary because you have no idea what is going on. Maybe the woods were haunted, the characters stupid, a serial killer stalking them, or maybe the witch was real. The unknown is a fear more scary than a tangible threat. You know why you were afraid of the monster under your bed? Because you had no clue what it was. Blair Witch tells you exactly what is going on and I am going to spoil it. If you still want to buy a ticket, I hope you read the next paragraph, and decide otherwise.

The witch is real. She is a grimy Slender Man similar to Ann Coulter, who lures people to the woods to kill them. Her footsteps make loud booming noises and she knocks down trees. She has time/space powers where she makes you think it is a certain time of day and slows down your perception of time. The witch can also make you hallucinate.

The mystery and terror of the threat is utterly gone because you learn everything about it. There is no unknown, no fear of the truth, or of what was really happening in the woods. You know exactly what is going on and it is so blatant, the movie relies on cheap jump scares to compensate.

Look, I understand that contemporary horror is schlock because ordinary people just want to be startled. They do not care about craft, finesse, or the stuff that makes real horror superior. They want something to provide little bursts of excitement in the company of friends and my complaining will not stop them. On those grounds Blair Witch is fine, but for normal people, it is the dumbest. Imagine Big Bang Theory without the laugh track, irredeemably terrible even with the laugh track. Go watch the original Blair Witch Project, It Follows, or Don’t Breathe for real horror instead.