Category Archives: Netflix

“Roma” Movie Review

Do you ever have that one moment or two when you realize that you’re watching something really special unfold before your eyes? If you are unable to find one of them while watching this film, then I don’t know if you’ll ever experience it. This historical black-and-white drama was originally selected for competition at the 70th Cannes Film Festival but was pulled at the last minute due to a dispute with its distributor. It was instead unveiled at the 75th Venice International Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Golden Lion award. Following a very lengthy festival run over the next few months, in an unprecedented move, the film was released in a large number of theaters beginning on November 21st, 2018, before landing on the streaming service Netflix on December 14th. While Netflix never releases its official numbers, it has reportedly managed to gross over $1.4 million from various specialty theaters, although Mexico’s two largest film chains refused to screen it. Written, produced, and directed by Alfonso Cuarón,  the film has been a passion project for him for virtually his entire career and is said to be roughly 90% autobiographical. After meeting up with executive producer David Linde, the American production company Participant Media was able to pull the funding together and have it shot in the filmmaker’s home country. There was also an incident where the crew was robbed by city workers during filming after a brawl broke out, and the actors were apparently not told everything that would happen from scene to scene. Set in the early 1970s in Mexico, we follow a year in the life of a large middle-class family living in Mexico City. The entire story is told from the perspective of their indigenous live-in housekeeper Cleo, played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, who constantly tries to find a balance between her work life and her time out of the house. However, when the mother and father’s relationship becomes increasingly strained, she has to step up and take care of the children for an extended period of time. Roma is the rare movie that is hard for me to put down into words. I had heard of Cuarón’s proposed film for quite some time, having been a very big fan of his previous directorial works such as Gravity, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Y Tu Mamá También. Hearing that he was returning to some very personal territory was extremely exciting. I had tried my hardest to see this film in a theater before it landed on Netflix because all of the reviews and reactions I read highly encouraged me to do so. However, after spending 135 minutes with this family, I can now firmly say that whichever way you watch it is totally irrelevant, as long as you just watch it. Because Roma is a genuinely beautiful masterwork and one of the best films I’ve seen in quite a while. And no, I’m not just saying this because of all of the awards season hype that it’s been garnering in the months since its premiere. Rather, the reason why I speak so highly of it is that it is one of those films that actually made me… feel something. While Roma does start off pretty slow and deliberate, it gradually takes hold of you and soon explodes into something that’s both ambitious in scope and intensely intimate in scale. There are at least three scenes, all of them occurring in the back half, that conjured up a wide range of complex emotions that I don’t ever think I’ll be able to properly articulate. It’s clear that Cuarón is coming from a deeply felt place in his life, dedicated to his real nanny Libo. Yet he still offers a universal resonance with its story and never lets nostalgia get in the way of anything. One of the best things he did was use a local cast, made up mostly of non-professionals. Yalitza Aparicio may have never acted before, but she delivers one of the best, most towering, and sincere performances from any actress this year. Previously trained as a pre-school teacher in a small village, she brings a natural empathy and radiant warmness to the children. It’s truly unique to see the film unfold through Cleo’s perspective, as she not only puts up with harsh difficulties outside the house but also observes the children’s reaction to everything. Opposite her is Marina De Tavira as Sofia, the struggling matriarch of the family. While she clearly loves her family, she constantly worries about the status of her marriage and how that could affect them. As a result, she frequently lashes out on impulse, one night drunkenly telling Cleo, “No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.” The children, played by Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Diego Cortine Autrey, and Carlos Peralta, are surprisingly great and empathetic as well. Two other standouts are Nancy García as the other housemaid Adela, who also consulted on the Mixtec dialogue, and Jorge Antonio Guerrero as Fermín, Cleo’s problematic boyfriend. Meanwhile, from a pure filmmaking perspective, Roma is a film made completely in Alfonso Cuarón’s own original voice. When his usual collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki couldn’t come onboard due to scheduling, the director had to fill in the role as his own cinematographer. And the results are absolutely astonishing, utilizing a 6K 65 mm camera to capture 1970’s Mexico in amazing widescreen. Many of the scenes are told through extensive, fluid long-takes, often centered in the exact same spot throughout the ordeal, making it feel like we’re observers inside a vivid memory. The stark black-and-white imagery also helps to give it a sense of timelessness but still make it feel like a faded event from the past. Cuarón also continues his career-long tradition of editing his own movies, this time in collaboration with Adam Gough. Cuts are very sparse throughout the film, but the ones that are there feel extremely calculated and purposeful. It also works to let many of the actors say a lot using simply their body language or facial expressions. Interestingly, there is no musical score or soundtrack in the movie at any point. Instead, the director utilizes state-of-the-art Dolby surround sound systems to capture nearly everything in its audio. Whether it’s something like soap on a dish, an airplane flying overhead, or daily vendors in a suburban street, it makes the whole experience even more immersive. The choice of no soundtrack also helps to better plant the viewer in any environment the characters are in, whether it’s in a store during the infamous Corpus Christi Massacre or on a lovely beach in Tuxpan. As cliche as it may sound, we’re right there with Cleo wherever she goes. However, because it’s such an intensely personal film for the filmmaker, it can be relatively understandable if some audiences aren’t as taken away by the story. It’s worth questioning how many people are truly willing to sit down for a black-and-white, 2-hour and 15-minute film about a Mexican family and their housekeeper that’s subtitled almost entirely in Spanish. But if you know what you’re getting into, it’ll practically be impossible not to be blown away by everything going on. Perhaps the director’s best work yet, Roma is a beautiful, intimate, and fundamentally human masterpiece of cinema. Alfonso Cuarón is a true master of the medium, and we are so unbelievably lucky to have him be able to tell stories like this to the world. It absolutely deserves all of the awards it will inevitably be nominated for, and Yalizta Aparicio is a genuine discovery. This is a film that has left me inspired as a hopeful filmmaker, both in its immaculate craft and tough-but-tender character examination. I can only hope that I can somehow measure up to this standard, and others like me can share the same feeling.

ROMA

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“Hold the Dark” Movie Review

If this and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia prove anything, it’s that the Alaskan Wilderness is a scary environment to go hunting for killers. I don’t care how pretty the scenery may be, if someone (Or something*) up there is wanted in questioning, I want no part in any of it. This horror thriller was initially set to premiere out of competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. However, following a series of heated clashes between the distributor and festival elites, it was pulled away from its original summer release and instead premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September to somewhat polarized reactions. Following another screening at Fantastic Fest, it was released (very briefly) in art house theaters and on the streaming service Netflix on September 28th, 2018. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the same man behind Blue Ruin and Green Room, his childhood friend and frequent star Macon Blair adapted the screenplay from the 2014 novel of the same name by William Giraldi. A24, the same production company that released Green Room, was initially supposed to distribute the film, before Netflix acquired worldwide rights in January of 2017. Set in December of 2004, the film opens with a young woman named Medora Slone, played by Riley Keough, whose young son is seemingly taken and murdered by wolves near a tiny Alaskan village named Keelut. She writes to Russell Core, played by Jeffrey Wright, a writer and retired naturalist who studies wolf behavior, begging him to help track down the wolves and kill them. She wants to make sure she at least has something to show her husband when he returns home, who’s currently deployed in Iraq. But while Core agrees and is out on the job, he accidentally gets drawn into a very dark mystery that the rest of the village seems to be in on. I’m a pretty big fan of Jeremy Saulnier’s two previous directorial efforts, Green Room and Blue Ruin. While the characters in both films were victims to making stupid choices, they both illustrated an exciting new filmmaker with a tight control on his voice. So getting the opportunity to see his next picture from the comfort of my dark living room in the evening made me anticipate Hold the Dark, not to mention the wonderful cast assembled. In particular, I wanted to see how he would be able to handle the bigger-scaled story compared with what he had previously written and directed. While it’s admittedly not really as great as those films, it’s still a solid thriller worth watching at least once. It’s clear in its metaphors that Saulnier has much he wants to say about human nature and our violent natural instincts. We witness numerous heinous acts committed by humans in either the village in Alaska or over in the Iraq warzone, ranging from murder to rape. In comparison, the wolves of Alaska, which are often viewed as savage and uncivilized, are oblivious to their own actions; everything that happens to them is seen as natural. Similar to his previous films, Hold The Dark doesn’t hold back on gruesome violence, but none of it ever happens unless it’s in service to the story. In fairness, Saulnier and Blair ultimately get carried away with their metaphors as the film doesn’t seem to lead anywhere totally concrete. It attempts to hint at something a little more supernatural, but rarely does something totally meaningful with it. I’ve enjoyed seeing Jeffrey Wright in a number of supporting roles over the years in both T.V. and film. And he proves here that he’s fully capable of carrying a feature-length picture as a lead character. As Russell Core, there’s a quiet aura and history of sadness and loneliness surrounding him, and we watch him trying to cling to reason and do what’s right. Riley Keough and Alexander Skarsgård also do great work as the Slone couple, who never seem quite right when they’re separated. From the very minute that these two first appear onscreen, they exude a cold, observational outlook on the remainder of their community. Julian Black Antelope and Tantoo Cardinal do superb supporting work as indigenous locals who seem to know something isn’t right with the family in question, while James Badge Dale is wonderfully subdued and grizzled as the honest cop hopelessly looking for answers. There are also tiny but effective parts by Peter McRobbie and Macon Blair himself that leave something of an impression. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Hold the Dark reveal reasons why Saulnier is a talent worth watching out for. Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s cinematography is quite gripping, using the bleak snowy environment to create a strong yet melancholic atmosphere. The way that it focuses on subjects and their every movements is very reminiscent of David Fincher, especially in the slow way that it reveals certain things. The editing by Julia Bloch, collaborator for the director on his previous efforts, cuts the movie in an extremely patient, slow to roll manner. Whenever violence bursts out, such as an intense shootout at a barn, it refuses to linger on gratuitous or bloody images for too long. It also focuses on certain subjects while other things are happening offscreen, as if to create a distant and observational look at the events displayed. Brooke Blair and Will Blair, Macon’s younger brothers and who have previously scored Saulnier’s last two features, have written some music for this film. It is in line with material they’ve written in the past, as it mostly consists of somber synthesizers and strings, reflecting the sad world the characters all live in. It also has a couple of tracks using the same instrumentation but instead arranged to rack up intensity. Filled with atmosphere and perhaps more metaphors than it can afford to carry, Hold the Dark is a sturdy, if unsatisfying slow-burn with a tight central mystery. Jeremy Saulnier proves that he’s able to handle a bigger budget, even if the results don’t always work. Moreover, Jeffrey Wright and Alexander Skarsgård provide some of their best work yet and show why they should be taken more seriously by studios and filmmakers. If for nothing else, this movie stands as further proof why I never want to live in Alaska.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” Movie Review

For those who are not in the mood for something as bleak as Godless but still more entertaining and valuable than The Ridiculous 6. This anthology-style Western dark comedy premiered in competition at the 75th Venice Film Festival. Despite a relatively cool response, it won the award for Best Screenplay and grew in favor with critics and industry insiders at further screenings at the New York Film Festival and A.F.I. Fest. In a truly unusual move for Netflix, it was released in limited theaters throughout the country a week before hitting the streaming service on November 16th, 2018. Of course, they never release their rating numbers, so it’s unlikely if we’ll ever know it’s true success at the box office. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the project is based on a series of short stories the duo wrote over the course of 20 to 25 years. Although it was initially reported to be a six-part television series, it has been insisted by the brothers and production company Annapurna Pictures that it was always intended to be a feature film. Told in a storybook format, we’re given 6 individual stories, all set in the Wild West. The first one finds the titular misanthrope as he sings and gallops through the desert. Then, “Near Algones” follows an outlaw who constantly finds himself in danger, while “Meal Ticket” sees a tragic traveling act as they work their monologue-heavy show through the winter in various towns. “All Gold Canyon” (An actual short story by Jack London) sees a grizzled prospector mining gold out of an untouched part of land, whereas “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is about a young woman begins a lustrous relationship with someone aboard a wagon train. And finally, “The Mortal Remains” sees a handful of travelers riding in a wagon together, arguing about life, death, morality, and other fundamentals of the world. As mentioned in my review for Fargo, I’m generally a big fan of the Coen Brothers’ work. While some of their work has been more impressive than others, Fargo and No Country For Old Men are two of my favorite movies of all time, while most of their filmography is still great at blending various genres and tones. While yes, their 2010 remake of True Grit was a straight-up Western, hearing their plans for an anthology like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs sounded like a great advancement of their careers. It being released on Netflix is both a blessing, because I get easy accessibility to their newest work, and a curse, since it’s not released in theatrical form like its counterparts. But still, it’s a great segue into their filmography with all of the excellent traits to expect from each film of theirs. Like many of their works, this one is far darker and more melancholy than it may seem at first glance. Yes, there is a healthy dose of genuinely funny dark comedy, often through the ironic situations characters in each story get themselves into. (“Near Algones” features the epitome of “gallows humor”) But they also come with a certain kind of sadness, some cases more obvious than others, and even a nihilistic view of the world they live in. The Wild West may be vast, beautiful, and open, but it’s also lawless, harshly violent, and wholly indifferent to the problems of its occupants, especially women and minorities. It’s very similar territory that the Coen Brothers have explored a few times before, but now it’s in anthology format. This is the thread that connects all of the tales together, instead of some crossover character of narrative crutch; for which I’m very thankful. Tim Blake Nelson stars as the titular outlaw in the first short, and I can’t think of an actor better fit for the part. Dipped in a heavy Texas drawl, he constantly breaks the fourth wall to humorously explain his state of mind during otherwise serious scenarios. It fits in good contrast with his violent nature, although he claims not to have any animosity towards his fellow man. The only other two actors that can match him is Tom Waits as the prospector in “All Gold Canyon” and Zoe Kazan in “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” Both show a tremendous amount of wonder for the untouched land that they explore and get to witness firsthand the violence that can erupt at any time. The rest of the ensemble is stacked with amazing talent from cover to cover. Liam Neeson, Clancy Brown, Bill Heck, Stephen Root, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly, Ralph Ineson, and Grainger Hines all do outstanding work across their respective shorts. Each of them is able to speak the absolutely brilliant dialogue to be expected from the filmmakers in their own distinct ways, creating unique characters aplenty. As far as technical aspects go, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs shows the Coen Brothers can still retain their unique voice no matter what platform its released on. Without regular collaborator Roger Deakins, Bruno Delbonnel had to step in for cinematography, marking the directors’ first foray into digital filmmaking. It’s a seamless transition, though, as there are many stunning shots throughout the film that capture the beautiful Western landscape, in stark contrast to the violence common in this area. Colors are vibrant and pretty, especially green for the pastors, and really make it look like a painting of the Romantic Era. The editing by Roderick Jaynes, meanwhile, shows the very precise way in which the brothers like to cut their films together. It breaks between cuts very artfully, such as Scruggs moving between different cameras to talk to about his perspective on the West and those who inhabit it. Continuing their fruitful collaboration, Carter Burwell composes and conducts the musical score for the 15th time with the filmmaking duo, with yet another round of impressive. Both sweeping and immediate, the score as a whole often feels like it was made for a Western picture back during the Golden Age of Hollywood. There are a lot of tracks involving strings, including strummed guitars and jagged staccatos, that establish the mood of each short. The use of brass also makes it sound classical, especially with the trumpet solemnly carrying the melody in several parts. It also has an original song called “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” written by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. Performed by Tim Blake Nelson and singer Willie Watson at the end of the eponymous first short, it’s a bittersweet duet ballad that laments about what it’d take for a gunslinger to give it up. It utilizes both singers magnificent voices, as well as harmonica and choral background; you’d swear it was written in that time period. In many ways, it’s perfect for the film as a whole for how it captures the gloomy tone. As with most anthology films, not all of the shorts are of equal quality to each other. I could have honestly spent an entire feature-length adventure with the titular character alone and been satisfied. Length is also an enemy, as I’m not entirely convinced that “The Gal Who Got Rattled” or “Meal Ticket” needed to be as long as they were. Overall though, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an expertly woven storybook that’s as hilarious as it is tragic. The fact that the Coen Brothers were able to wring a compelling film out of Netflix is a testament both to their versatility and the distributor’s draw for auteurs. Featuring great music and intriguing themes in each of its stories, like many of their films, it really marinates on you after the first viewing. You may even be compelled to watch it again.

“22 July” Movie Review

Generally speaking, I attempt to avoid talking about current politics on my blog. But after watching this movie, the temptation is way too strong. I’ll try to stay off of my soapbox as much as possible, though. This political drama premiered at the 75th International Venice Film Festival to great acclaim. However, it received a much cooler response from its screening during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, before releasing on Netflix on October 10th of that year. However, while it did receive a limited run in theaters day-and-date, it saw an unusually wide release in over 100 specialty theaters around the globe. Box office estimates are believed to be are $166,000 against a $20 million budget. Written and directed by Paul Greengrass, the man behind The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93, and Captain Phillips, he had originally developed the film under the title Norway and had also set it for a later release date. It was one of numerous films that the distributor pulled from screening at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in protest of new policies. It is unique among modern productions because it was made using a local cast and crew that were bilingual. The film is based off of a sad true story. On July 22nd, 2011, a far-right terrorist named Anders Behring Breivik committed a shocking sequence of violent acts in Norway. These include a bombing of the government headquarters in the capital city Oslo and a teen-led Worker’s Youth League on the small island of Utøya; 77 were killed, making it the worst terror attack in the country’s history. It then shifts into the aftermath, focusing on Breivik’s tumultuous legal process with a reluctant lawyer, the attempts of his victims to recover from the tragedy, and the Labour Party-controlled government wrestling with how to move forward- especially since there may be more attacks to come. I hadn’t even heard about this movie, let alone the events that it was based on, before a couple months ago. And in all seriousness, at first, I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to watch it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Paul Greengrass and his unique cinematic approach to realism, but stories about domestic terrorism are usually ones that I steer clear from. After some thought, though, especially considering the recent rise of hate violence and nationalism in America, I decided that it was important to at least give 22 July a shot and see this issue from a European perspective. And while it doesn’t necessarily work in all aspects, this is undoubtedly a film with honest intentions and speaks to our current moment. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how the attacks themselves are dealt away with in the first 40 minutes. Whereas other films like this such as United 93 spend the majority of the film centering around and building up to the big tragedy, 22 July is far more concerned with the aftermath and how a country should be able to deal with something like this. Moreover, Greengrass has no interest in diving into what ticks or drives in someone like Anders Behring Breivik because he knows that he’s wrong. And others like him, too. Dylann Roof, Timothy McVeigh, David Duke, Robert Bowers; people who use violence to promote a far-right agenda are wrong. It was also something genius for Greengrass to use a local Norwegian cast as they feel infinitely more believable, even as they speak English. Arguably the main actor is Jonas Strand Gravli as Vilijar, one of the survivors from the attack on Utøya. Disabled and traumatized, he is heartbreakingly convincing and sympathetic as a young teen who’s lost so much due to one violent attack. Equally good is Jon Øigarden as Geir Lippestead, the reluctant lawyer of Breivik during the trial. Selected for having defended a Neo-Nazi a decade prior, you can tell all the struggle he faces trying to defend a monster, especially as he receives threats from Norwegians citizens to step down. Meanwhile, Anders Danielsen Lie is both cold and terrifying as Anders Behring Breivik. He executes the teens with utter impunity and later he espouses his reasons so straightforward and confidently, with no regret for his heinous actions. “I demand to be acquitted because I acted in defense of my country,” he says before the prosecution and families in court, as if he were a misunderstood knight guarding the borders. Sadly, a lot of the things he says in the movie have become mainstream in the Western world as of late, with even some powerful, influential people taking on similar philosophies. Meanwhile, despite working with an unknown cast and crew, Paul Greengrass is still able to project his unique voice through 22 July in the technical aspects. Pål Ulvik Rokseth’s cinematography is very much in line with the director’s previous style of documentary-style, cinéma vérité looks into the lives of these victims. A lot of the film is handheld, but never unintelligible in its delivery, often using zoom-ins and over-the-shoulder shots on subjects. This proves to be a fairly effective as it allows us to peer into these devastating events like we’re either a fly on the wall or watching a highly televised version of what’s happening. Michael Mann’s longtime collaborator William Goldenberg edits the film in a mostly subtle way, bringing each scene together pretty well. When the attack on Utøya is happening, he wisely decides to not linger on the horrifying violence that Breivik commits. Instead, he cuts back and forth between the survivors and him, making it all the more visceral, a similar strategy used when he’s giving his statement in court. There is a musical score written by Sune Martin, in their first English-language feature. It is appropriately sparse and minimalist, as an overt soundtrack could’ve made it come off as manipulative and cheap. What tracks there are throughout are extremely lowkey, mostly utilizing synthesized strings and piano. This creates an ambient atmosphere of sadness and uncertainty, just like the mindset of the country. But there are many other instances without any music, allowing the actors to convey the emotions without any sentimentality. While the music that does exist isn’t necessarily bad, one has to wonder if the film would’ve been better without one at all. Obviously, due to the subject matter, there are a lot of people who will have a hard time sitting through this film, let alone click the “Play” button. At a number of points, it is quite difficult to watch, especially the scenes involving Vilijar’s recovery. And it can also be infuriating watching Anders Behring Breivik sit so smug while the government and courts scramble to figure out what to do with him. Nevertheless, 22 July a clunky but harrowing examination of hope and unity in the face of terror. While the resolution and overall message may come off as naïve and childish to some, in these scary times, it may be just what we need to witness. Not only that, but it demands that our government and the people in charge of it take responsibility for the citizens so that something like the Norway attacks can never be allowed to happen again. And I’m hoping that it doesn’t.

“Outlaw King” Movie Review

I have some bad news for anyone who wants to watch this movie because they heard Chris Pine shows his full-frontal genitalia; it’s a very quick shot, practically blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. Most people will stay for the movie itself. This epic historical action drama premiered as the opening night feature for the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. After a mixed-to negative reception from critics and industry insiders, two weeks later the director announced he was shaving nearly 23 minutes off the picture. It was then released in a condensed format in select theaters and on the streaming service Netflix on November 9th, 2018, finished on a budget of $120 million. Directed and co-written by David Mackenzie, who also helmed the 2016 neo-Western Hell of High Water, the film was a passion project of his that took over five years to develop. Initially undertaken with extensive research and a couple of playwrights by his side, the completed screenplay was credited to as many as five different writers. He was apparently dismayed by the reaction at TIFF, but felt relieved when the distributor gave him a chance to fix his errors. Set in Scotland in 1304, Chris Pine stars as Robert the Bruce, a well-regarded man with a legitimate claim to his country’s throne. Following the near-crushing defeat of their Rebellion a few years prior led by William Wallace, the remaining Scottish nobility reluctantly swear fealty to King Edward I of England, played by Stephen Dillane, in order to keep their lands intact. Civil unrest and terrible circumstances force Robert to be crowned King of Scotland, triggering an all-out guerilla war against the much larger English army. I absolutely adored Mackenzie’s previous directorial effort, Hell or High Water, released back in 2016. Although I haven’t yet seen any of his other works, that one was such a smart, understated, and beautifully simple character piece with incredible performances out its three main leads. Hearing the director was developing a Medieval epic with one of those leads returning (Pine) for Netflix was enticing, especially after hearing about its emphasis on historical accuracy. Because while I really love Braveheart, it’s really hard for me to overlook the laughable inaccuracies shown throughout. And honestly, even after all of the critical hullabaloo that this film has been through, I found Outlaw King to be a surprisingly entertaining and engaging film. Now, I’m not saying that it’s an amazing movie by any means. While I’ve heard that the cut on Netflix is a major improvement over its TIFF screening, the pacing felt a bit uneven. Even though its runtime now only clocks in right at 2 hours and 1 minute, it feels like it drags in some of the more dramatic moments, as it’s clearly meant to be more of an action-oriented film. Plus, it still feels as though most of the supporting characters from either side of the conflict weren’t fleshed out enough to bring the stakes up higher. Chris Pine does a surprisingly good job as Robert the Bruce, a proud man left with an intensely unhappy country to tend to. His Scottish accent was a bit dodgy at first, but it seemed like he got more into it as it went along. Despite the brutal violence he and his followers commit, he still shows a tenderness towards his people and his family. Game of Thrones alum Stephen Dillane plays King Edward I, and he seems quite comfortable in the role. Channeling bits of Stannis Baratheon, he does a great job internalizing his frustration with trying to control Scotland consistently and is unafraid to kill hundreds to get to Robert. Despite this, he’s not completely heartless and would much rather negotiate peace, telling Robert early on, “You had the courage to stand up to me, and the wisdom to step down.” And while other actors do great such as Aaron Johnson as the unpredictable Black Douglas, Billy Howle as the deranged Prince of Wales, Tony Curran as a feisty loyalist to Robert, and more, the only one who really leaves an impression is Florence Pugh as Elizabeth de Burgh, the Bruce’s English wife. Her journey from meek observer to staunch supporting of Scottish independence is a tad jarring at first, but she never loses sight of her strength and compassion. She does her best making decisions based on SHE wants- not her powerful parents, not her outlaw husband, no one. I’m genuinely eager to see her in more films, and her slate this upcoming year will hopefully satisfy that palette. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Outlaw King make it pretty clear where that massive budget went to. Shot by Barry Ackroyd, a regular Ken Loach and Paul Greengrass collaborator, he surprisingly restrains his documentarian, cinéma vérité style in favor of something more controlled. The film opens with a stunning, 8 minute-long take that follows the Scottish nobility at their surrender to King Edward I with amazing fluidity. Even during the impressively staged action scenes, the camera remains steady and focused on its subjects. There are also, of course, obligatory swooping shots, which reveal the gorgeous landscape of Scotland. It goes nicely with the editing by Jake Roberts, who cuts each scene together without losing sight of what’s important. It doesn’t particularly feel choppy, despite the near-last-minute trimming of the film, and allows the audience to see the action, especially the glorious, muddy final battle, in full form. Bringing home the historical accuracy is the fantastic sets and the costume designs by Jane Petrie. With rough chainmail, dirty armor patches, and nary a kilt or drop of blue face paint in sight, it feels incredibly lived-in and realistic. The musical score is composed by Tony Doogan and Lucie Treacher, and it’s more or less what I expected to hear. There are a number of tracks filled with sorrowful strings and ghostly hymnal choirs, almost prophesizing the death toll this war will take on Scotland. While it’s great to listen to, it’s not very memorable. There is an original song called “Land O the Leal” by Grey Dogs that plays over the end credits. Featuring the fair voice of Kathryn Joseph, it’s a melancholy piano ballad lamenting on the bloodied homeland of Robert the Bruce. It’s a nice song, but hardly one worth listening to more than a few times. Well-meaning but often misguided in its vision, Outlaw King is a flawed epic celebrating both spectacle and a truly noble man. Maybe I’m a bit fickle and old, but I’d be lying to you if I said that I wasn’t entertained throughout this movie. David Mackenzie gets to show off his Scottish pride with great commitment while Chris Pine plays a classical Medieval hero and Florence Pugh emerges as a talent to watch. Hopefully, it will find a new appreciation and audience, in spite of what happened behind the scenes.

 

“Apostle” Movie Review

If ever one needed a reminder of why never to start a separate “commune” or new belief system, here’s a great example. At the end of the day, it can only end badly for people on all sides. This period folk horror drama from The Raid writer-director Gareth Evans initially premiered at the 2018 Fantastic Fest to a wealth of positive reviews. It was then released on the streaming service Netflix and a handful of specialty theaters on October 12th. Following the huge international success of his Indonesian action films Merantu, The Raid, and The Raid 2, Evans next set his sights on a film set in the English-speaking world. Rather than capitalize on his success in the action genre, he decided to try his hand at an idea that had apparently been burning in his mind for a while. Set in 1905 England, Dan Stevens stars as Thomas Richardson, a drifting young man who has become disillusioned from faith and his privileged family. He returns when he learns how his young innocent sister Jennifer has been kidnapped and being held for ransom by a dangerous religious cult on a remote Welsh island. Led by the Prophet Malcolm Howe, they believe in a great goddess of the island who gives them everything, including crops and water. Thomas travels to this island in an attempt to rescue his sister, learning of the cult’s truly dark rituals on the way. Confession time: I have still yet to watch either installments of The Raid, which seems to be heresy in the realm of action movie fans. Don’t ask why, it’s just been a very complicated, and thus far unsuccessful, endeavor to seek it out. Regardless, I’d been very interested in watching such a curious project, especially one I can watch alone in the dark at night from the comfort of my living room. It had also been marketed by some as The Raid meets The Wicker Man. (Original one, NOT the Nic Cage remake) I was surprised to learn, however, that Gareth Evans decided to take the route he did with Apostle, and it was a pleasant surprise. This is one of the better Netflix Originals to come out and just a great horror movie in general. In all of cinema, there is perhaps nothing that terrifies or disturbs me more than the occult or those who follow it. Previously, a sci-fi film released this year called The Endless by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead also dealt with that tough niche to really thought-provoking results. Apostle seeks to address that once more with its own original take on the occult, and it’s no less disturbing. Watching the citizens of this island blindly participate or comply with some truly horrific actions, for no other reason than “It was as She commanded” is unsettling to say the least. In fact, the film as a whole is an indictment of faith and how people have used it to justify acts of violence dealt out to those who don’t believe like them. Worse still, the cult’s beliefs are shown to be quite sane, but they still exploit it for personal gain. It begs the question of whether humans are naturally violent creatures and whether virtue is impossible in our world- at least without vice. Dan Stevens has impressed me with his FX show Legion, and I dare say his performance here is on par with it. As Thomas, he’s cynical and dark after losing his faith in God, telling one person, “Beware false profits, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly, they are ravening wolves.” There’s quite a bit of physicality to the role, and it soon becomes clear that he’ll do anything to rescue his beloved sister. Opposite him, Michael Sheen does tremendous work as Prophet Malcolm Howe, one of the most intriguing villains in a film this year. With a charismatic presence and a sharp tongue, you can clearly see how he was able to persuade an entire chunk of the British population of his Goddess’ existence and importance. His daughter is played by Lucy Boynton, and she helps to create a fascinating dynamic with him. As with the children of the other two founders, there is a clear disconnect between what he preaches and what she wants in life; she sees Thomas as her first insight into the real world off the island. Mark Lewis Jones is convincingly creepy and gross as Quinn, Prophet Malcolm’s right-hand man and enforcer. We can tell there is a lot of pent-up anger and jealousy within him, even as he silently carries out his duties. As for the technical aspects, Apostle is pretty distinguished in a year filled with great horror movies. Matt Flannery’s cinematography, also responsible for both installments of The Raid, is as stunning and visually appealing as the island on which it is set. When there are action scenes in the film, they show in their full, brutal glory without lingering too long to become gratuitous. Evans also shows off his talents as an editor with a kinetic yet patient form of cutting the scenes. With each cut, you can practically feel every crunched bone and cut flesh in the fights, adding to the brutality. What’s more is that the houses and sets for the village itself are brilliant and period accurate. It feels as though there’s a whole history to it, as the houses all look handcrafted and incredibly lived-in. Meanwhile, Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal both compose the musical score for Apostle, in addition to being the primary sound designers. While there are a handful of tracks that ultimately go to the horror cliché of sudden strings for jumpscares, for the most part it’s pretty respectable. It has a rather uneasy and atmospheric tone throughout, signifying that something is seriously wrong with both this place and its inhabitants. Like a lot of great folk horror stories, it doesn’t try to be obvious a lot of the time, but it does build in intensity when needed to. While overall it was a highly entertaining and gripping thriller with some interesting things to say, the film felt maybe 15 minutes too long. With the mythology that Evans has built here, there is inevitably some fat to be found that could have been trimmed down. The first hour or so is very slow rolling, with some dialogue or scenes that seem a tad out of place. However, it’s mostly redeemed in the satisfying and brutal conclusion, which is likely going to keep me thinking for a little while. Apostle is a brilliant genre melting pot in a great backdrop. This certainly ranks among the more unique horror films to be released this year, in large part thanks to the conviction of both Gareth Evans and Dan Stevens. Stay as far away from cults as you can, but watch this movie from the comfort of your home.

 

“Come Sunday” Movie Review

In a world cluttered with God’s Not Dead sequels, Kirk Cameron after-school specials, and Nicholas Cage’s Left Behind, along comes a small little film that actually tries to treat faith and religion with respect. Keep in mind that the operative word here is “Tried.” This biographical drama from director Joshua Marston initially premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival to a generally mixed reception. It was later released worldwide on the streaming service Netflix on April 13th. Originally produced by filmmaker Marc Forster, the film is said to be adapted from a 2005 episode of the radio podcast This American Life, with the host Ira Davis hopping on board as a credited producer. The screenplay written by Marcus Hinchey has been in development supposedly since at least 2010, with several potential actors and directors moving in and out. Based on a true story, Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Carlton Pearson, a Pentecostal minister who went on to become one of the most prominent African-American priests in recent history. In the late 1990’s, he briefly becomes disillusioned with his own faith after the suicide of his uncle (Who he had every opportunity to save) and witnessing the Rwandan genocides on T.V. news. Looking to use his televised persona to help give people hope, he begins preaching the radical concept of universal salvation, which implies that all men and women will be forgiven by God in the end. This causes quite a stir within his own tight-knit household and the broader Christian community, particularly his mentor Oral Roberts. Come Sunday is a frustrating movie, but not in the sense of narrative or emotional involvement. After bashing some Netflix Original films earlier this year, here’s a movie that shows that they are still capable of producing higher quality drama. And the fact that they’ve released low-brow “comedies” (Game Over, Man!) and toxic sci-fi thrillers (Mute) instead of picking up more anticipated or acclaimed projects is simply frustrating to cinephiles like myself. And honestly, after a wash of borderline-propaganda films that try to shove Christianity down the throats of audiences, it’s nice to see one that attempts to explore the religion from a secular view. While Come Sunday is undoubtedly interesting and well-acted, there’s a lot left to be desired. Like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, having grown up in a religious household, there was a lot here that I definitely appreciated more. I knew little to nothing of the story prior to pressing “Play,” so watching a man of the cloth portrayed as a real human being was quite refreshing. Similarly, the movie never condescends on the viewer how faith is important to a lot of people, good or bad. There are some individuals who genuinely want to use their religion to help others, as is shown in the opening scene on a plane. The problem is that Joshua Marston gives the whole thing to the audience straight, lacking an emotional punch on the themes. He seems to work well with his actors, but the direction feels kind of bland and holds back on any power in storytelling. You can’t help but feel that the film would have been more satisfying and engaging if it were put in the hands of a more experienced and confident filmmaker. Thankfully, Chiwetel Ejiofor puts in great, subtle work as Bishop Carlton Pearson. Even without saying a word, we can see the deep conflict in his eyes, a good man who is tortured by his own devout faith. Also, Jason Segel is surprisingly great in a dramatic role as Henry, one of the church’s main financial backers. While it could be easy to paint him as close-minded, Segel does respectable work at making him feel understanding of Pearson’s intentions, even if they don’t see eye-to-eye. Similarly, Martin Sheen, who just seems born to play men of the cloth, inkles some sympathy out of Oral Roberts. He personally groomed Carlton for his career and is a constant, if sometimes a frictional voice of help and guidance on the matters at hand. Other actors like LaKeith Stanfield as the church’s closeted organ player, Danny Glover as the Bishop’s doomed uncle, and Condola Rashad as his unfulfilled wife all do great work but don’t quite leave the same impression. And when it comes to the technical aspects of the film, there’s something about it that just feels dry and uninspired. The cinematography by Peter Flinckenberg uses a lot of muted or crushed colors, helping to illustrate the dark reality this story takes place in. The only one that really seems to stand out that much is purple, which is a major part of the Bishop’s clothes and organization. The editing is pretty finely tuned to each scene, with some clever imagery shown here or there. The two elements come together remarkably well in the moments when Pearson is actually delivering his sermons to a diverse crowd. Given the fact that the Pentecostal ministers were being televised during their preaching sessions, it puts the audience right into the moment. Like we’re watching the man give a sermon right before our eyes, in person. Neither outright horrible nor groundbreakingly amazing in any sense, Come Sunday is a well-intentioned but uneven look at sacrifice. It is certainly leaps and bounds ahead of most Netflix Original films so far this year, but still not remarkable enough to give a definite recommendation. Films like these should be made more often, as they’re far better looks at faith and religion than what you might be used to. Director Joshua Marston and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s hearts are in the right place, but it sadly lacks the punch necessary for this story.

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