31 Days to Scare ~ Apostle

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1905, a drifter on a dangerous mission to rescue his kidnapped sister tangles with a sinister religious cult on an isolated island.

Stars: Dan Stevens, Lucy Boynton, Michael Sheen, Bill Milner, Mark Lewis Jones, Elen Rhys, Sharon Morgan

Director: Gareth Evans

Rated: TV-MA

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Plenty of horror movies come and go with varying degrees of value over time.  The tried and true masterworks are like warm blankets, boons to the soul that work no matter the circumstance or situation.  Some are quick larks that entertain in the moment and fade from memory before you close your eyes for the night.  The bad ones unfortunately tend to stay in your mind because you can’t believe you’ve wasted time on something so pointless when you could have been reading that Alexander Hamilton biography gathering dust on your nightstand.  Then there are the new classics that appear on the scene and you know almost right away they’ll have an impact that remains after the last drop of blood has been shed.

It’s been nearly a year since I fired up Apostle on Netflix and it was by happenstance I caught it at all.  It totally wasn’t on my radar, even though it boasted a tantalizing cast and was written and directed by Gareth Evans.  Evans was behind the eye-popping amazement that was The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 so I was eager to get a peak at what he had conjured up.  You could tell from the beginning Apostle wasn’t your average run-of-the-mill horror film and as it played on I kept waiting for the misstep that would prove to be the expected letdown…but it never came.  This is that rare unicorn on a streaming service that arrives with little fanfare and winds up knocking your socks clear off your feet.  Anything I was expecting from the film was thrown out the window and I got so much more than I could have imagined.

Arriving on a small Welsh island at the turn of the century, Thomas (Dan Stevens, Beauty and the Beast) is looking for his kidnapped sister that he has tracked to this location.  Being held for ransom but a religious cult, Thomas poses as a new convert to gain passage into the sect and when he arrives he isn’t prepared for the danger that awaits him.  Though he finds his sister fairly quickly, getting off of the island alive won’t be as simple.  Led by the charismatic Malcolm (Michael Sheen, Home Again), the order demands blood from their followers as a way to feed the land that’s eternally…hungry.  As Thomas seeks a way off the island to safety with his sister, he needs to steer clear of the town elders and an array of suspicious eyes that are always watching his every move.  Flashbacks to his past as a Christian missionary hint of a man that’s already suffered a great deal for his beliefs, he’s not about to follow a similar fate here with these people.

With support from Malcolm’s daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton, Bohemian Rhapsody), Thomas goes deeper into the heart of the island and discovers the mystery that lays at the heart of the cult.  Who or what is feasting on the blood of the townspeople and what is lurking in a tunnel linking the makeshift village to a cave on the coast with ancient drawings suggesting there’s a deity dwelling within the island.  Could it be the entity referred to simply as Her? Or the protective figure known as The Grinder? The answers to these questions come with a considerable bit of bloodshed and grisly gore, shown in gruesome detail by Evans.  Never one to shy away from violence, Evans doesn’t hold back here, employing torture devices used to extricate confessions from suspects and putting a meat mincer to grotesque use.

If this all makes the movie sound intense and hard to watch, well, it is.  It’s also gorgeously made and performed by a fully-committed cast.  The isolated setting and mythical undertones give the film a supernatural bent while the violent religious fanaticism provides horrors of its own as no bond proves too strong to be tested.  Not going to lie, I had to turn away a few times because the images were too disturbing, but it was strangely energizing to see such bold filmmaking conveyed with such sophistication.  Available on Netflix, this is a must-see for fans of horror of genre filmmaking.  A great selection for a Friday or Saturday night in or a rainy Sunday afternoon (after church), Apostle will rattle your cage with fire and brimstone.

Movie Review ~ Joker

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A clown-for-hire by day, strives to be a stand-up comic at night…but finds that the joke always seems to be on him. Caught in a cyclical existence teetering on the precipice of reality and madness, one bad decision brings about a chain reaction of escalating, ultimately deadly, events.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Marc Maron, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Josh Pais, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olsen

Director: Todd Phillips

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’ve almost been dreading the day I had to see Joker ever since I saw the first preview for it.  Though the internet lost their minds when they got a look at Joaquin Phoenix in costume and there were plenty exclamations of “Take My Money!” (What does that phrase mean, exactly? Anyway…), I didn’t understand what this movie was meant to do.  For audiences.  For the studio.  For the character.  The Joker has been played indelibly before by the likes of Caesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger…did Phoenix really want to walk a mile in those clown shoes and be compared to those titans?  Also, the movie just looked skeevy and drab, clearly aiming to distance itself far from any vision yet of Gotham City.

So it came to pass that the day the screening arrived nothing seemed to go right.  Waking up on the wrong side of the bed doesn’t even begin to describe it.  The day was gloomy, the night was rain-soaked.  The topper was a crazy security line to get into the preview that had the effect of setting a somber mood.  Being slowly wanded by a security guard made me feel like there was something to be wary about, the early buzz of the movie’s excessive violence bouncing around in my head.  Were critics worrying the movie might stir unrest not all that unfounded?  I was on edge from the beginning.

Perhaps all that build-up and early fretting helped me stave off some of the higher expectations others may have going into the movie this weekend.  While it’s certainly as violent as I’d heard and more deeply upsetting than I was imagining, I watched Joker with a transfixed gaze without being able to turn away.  I didn’t always like what I was seeing but I couldn’t take my eyes off of the screen.  It’s a film that starts with a bleak outlook and just goes downhill from there with little reprieve, hope, or kindness offered along the way.  Even so, there’s a certain beauty in all that ugliness.

A standalone story that doesn’t involve the caped crusader (no mention of the B-word at all), Joker basically gives the Clown Prince of Crime the Wicked treatment and makes the character we’ve come to know as the villain the protagonist of the story.  Director Todd Phillips (The Hangover Part III) co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver (The Finest Hours) and borrows liberally from Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed classics Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  Setting the action in 1981 NYC gives Phillips the opportunity to let production designer Mark Friedberg (Noah) and costume designer Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread) pull out all the stops and the Big Apple is indeed recreated in all its seedy, smoky glory.  It’s almost worth the price of admission alone to see the way the filmmakers have crafted not only the look of the time but also the mood.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix, The Master) makes a meager living as clown hired out for odd jobs while dreaming of making it as a stand-up comic on the Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, Cape Fear) show.  Living with his mother (Frances Conroy, Falling in Love) in a one-room apartment, he suffers from brain trauma causing him to laugh uncontrollably when faced with stress.  Entertaining a new friendship with a neighbor (Zazie Beetz, Deadpool 2), Arthur becomes more infatuated with the thought of fame.  His weekly therapy sessions hint at a man with diagnosed mental health issues not getting the kind of significant treatment he needs and, eventually, not even having the benefit of meeting with his psychiatrist. Soon, he’s a man on the edge finally pushed to his breaking point.

While dressed as a clown, he’s assaulted on a subway and strikes back.  Though his identity goes unnoticed, his actions do not, inspiring the lesser thans in a city roiling in unrest to find a common bond and uniting in their shared anger.  Though he claims to not stand for anything, deep down Arthur shares in their feelings, wondering why the world is so messed up and people have become so rotten to one another.  Finding a newfound strength with his painted on persona and with his inner circle closing in around him, Arthur sets his sights on a broader audience and when his path crosses with his favorite television star, he seizes an opportunity to take the Joker global.

There’s a few ways you can look at what Phillips and Silver are going for with Joker.  You can view the movie from a perspective that a terrible society without feeling or order breeds people like Arthur Fleck.  He’s pushed aside and forgotten, left to fend for himself without any real chance to succeed.  How can we expect people to be better, do better, if they aren’t given some kind of opportunity or a means of support?  There’s another way to look at the film and I think it’s more dangerous.  Maybe it’s a thinly veiled battle cry against a humanity that has become self-absorbed and aims to restore some order by introducing a violent messiah messiah-figure to idolize.  I doubt the filmmakers knowingly were aiming for this but our culture isn’t that great at reading into the deeper meanings in metaphor so if some kind of statement on the dangers of societal violence was being made I think it was lost in the telling.  The fears some people have voiced that the movie may be pro mob-mentality aren’t that off the mark.

At the epicenter of it all is Joaquin Phoenix’s polarizing performance as Fleck/Joker which hits the bullseye at times but is wildly weird at others.  Backed by a surprisingly alert performance from De Niro and an eclectic mix of character actors, Phoenix is never off screen, which gets exhausting. Phoenix is known for immersing himself in roles to sometimes concerning levels and I spent most of the movie wondering how long it took for him to bounce back after filming had completed.  That’s a problem.  I was always aware it was a performance while watching his gaunt and greasy figure move from scene to scene.

Losing weight for the role gave him the wan visage intended but you can see him angling his body or sucking his stomach in to show each rib and bone – so it’s clearly all for show.  Strangely, it’s when Phoenix is in make-up as Joker (actually, anytime he’s in clown make-up throughout the movie) that he’s nothing short of electric.  Especially as the film ramps up to its troublesome final act, Phoenix positively comes alive and sheds the more pithy acting choices he’s made up until that point.  Now, there’s more than danger present in Arthur’s eyes, there’s glee in the dread he’s inflicting on Gotham City and happiness he’s being noticed for the first time in his unhappy life.

We’ve had so many interpretations of Batman over the years that maybe it wasn’t all that bad of an idea to have a different take on one of the players in his rogue gallery of villains.  I’m not sure Joker is exactly the movie we needed right now at this point when our nation is so overwhelmed with negativity and a general aimlessness, but it’s a well-made and in your face film that will surely open up conversations.  You can argue the intentions of the filmmakers but you can’t argue that the movie isn’t intriguing in its own weird way.

Movie Review ~ Semper Fi


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A police officer who serves in the Marine Corps Reserves is faced with an ethical dilemma when it comes to helping his brother in prison.

Stars: Jai Courtney, Finn Wittrock, Nat Wolff, Beau Knapp, Leighton Meester, Arturo Castro

Director: Henry Alex Rubin

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Coming from a large city, I’ve always found myself drawn to movies about small towns and the people that live there.  I’m used to the noise and the constant motion, so much so that when I do find myself in a tiny township the peacefulness found there can almost make me a little too restless.  As a child, I would tire easily anytime I traveled to my mom’s hometown in the southern part of our state because I had to exert so much energy to entertain myself.  Now, I value that slower pace and understand better the appreciation for, I can’t believe I’m saying this, the land.

A slower pace is something I noticed right off the bat in Semper Fi, a drama opening in limited release this weekend and also available steaming/on demand.  Setting his movie back in 2005 in a NY town bordering Canada, writer/director Henry Alex Rubin adopts a rhythm early on the film where conversation drives the movie forward, not necessarily action.  Cutting his teeth working as a second-unit director with James Mangold before moving on to direct the acclaimed documentary Murderball and the vastly undervalued Disconnect, I was familiar with Rubin’s favored approach to character driven dramas.

Four life-long friends and members of the Marine reserves are enjoying a night of bowling at the start of the film and Rubin introduces them by, of all things, their bowling balls.  Cal (Jai Courtney, The Water Diviner) is a police office in town and the unspoken leader of the group alongside ladies man Jaeger (Finn Wittrock, Judy), the hard-working and loyal Snowball (Arturo Castro, Snatched), and Milk (Beau Knapp, The Finest Hours), a family man walking the straight and narrow.  Tagging along is Cal’s half-brother, Oyster (Nat Wolff, The Fault in Our Stars), a screw-up they all take turns playing big brother to if Cal isn’t available.  There’s an instant rapport established between the men so that we believe they’ve known each other all their lives and we’ve just happened to drop in on an ordinary night for them.

The time we spend getting to know them is brief because the men are soon to receive their orders to serve in the war on the other side of the world.  This means leaving their friends and family, some of them for the first time.  The men are about to ship out to Iraq when Oyster gets into a drunken brawl.  Fleeing the scene, he’s eventually picked up and turned in by Cal who is only trying to protect him from further harm.  Winding up in prison for manslaughter based on shaky testimony, he’s serving his sentence as the men head overseas on an eight month deployment.  During this time, Oyster suffers under the watch of vicious guards while the four friends experience their own hardship on the battlefield, coming home heroes but paying a price for their efforts.

The first 1/3 of the film where we are introduced to the guys is your standard bro-tastic passage where the characters are quickly defined and Rubin leaves it to his talented cast to fill in the gaps along the way.  To their credit, all five men take up the challenge nicely with Castro and Knapp delivering the most interesting performances in probably the smallest roles.  Courtney, Wittrock, and Wolff all have showier parts but it’s the quieter moments and decisions that are made in the final 1/3 of the film that made Castro and Knapp stand out for me. I do wish, though, that the one female character that’s given anything to do (Leighton Meester, The Judge) was written with a bit more depth. The middle section where the men return home wasn’t presented in the same PTSD tortured way I’ve grown accustomed to seeing and I was thankful for that.  The men return to a town that hasn’t changed much, and that proves disappointing to them.

I wasn’t quite sure what kind of movie Semper Fi was going to be even at the 60 minute mark and once Rubin landed on a final destination the movie starts to pick up steam.  Though a change in tone does come out of left field (from a different movie all together, if I’m being honest) it at least snapped my attention back into focus and held me there until a rather perfunctory ending.  It’s almost as if Rubin didn’t want to fully leave the quiet of this small NY town so he just turned the camera off…I get it but the movie calls out for something a little more solid to round off some sketchy edges.  There’s some hint of deeper family trauma with Cal and Oyster but it’s only touched on briefly and never fully resolved, it’s almost as if Cal’s actions later in the movie are a substitute for a large discussion he needs to have with his younger sibling.

There are so few dramas out there that show vulnerable side to men and while Semper Fi doesn’t mine the depths of the range of emotions it could have, it does provide some nice moments for its talented cast.  I think it makes a mistake in dovetailing toward a more genre-specific film near the end that it didn’t need to be, adding some useless plot contrivances that cheapens some of what came before.  It’s still a worthy endeavor and interesting watch, but there’s a part of me that wonders what another draft of the screenplay would have looked like with a different third act.  Rubin is on to something here, but it doesn’t totally come together.

Movie Review ~ Where’s My Roy Cohn?


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Roy Cohn personified the dark arts of American politics, turning empty vessels into dangerous demagogues – from Joseph McCarthy to his final project, Donald J. Trump.

Stars: Ken Auletta, Roy M. Cohn, Joseph McCarthy, Roger Stone, Liz Smith

Director: Matt Tyrnauer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  After Donald Trump gained enough Electoral College votes to claim victory on election night back in 2016, most of America was left shell-shocked and wondering how this could have happened.  Keep in mind he lost the popular vote by millions.  Entering the final weeks of the campaign with a growing list of concerns over his qualifications to lead the nation, it was almost safely assumed he stood no real shot at winning.  So how did it happen?  Did we all just have too much faith in our democratic system?  Or did we not see that this rise to power was a long time in the making and a fox had been placed in the henhouse right under our noses even before the eggs had hatched?

The answer to the ascent of Trump can be traced back to one man, Roy M. Cohn, and he’s the subject of a new documentary making its way to theaters this weekend after first bowing at January’s Sundance Film Festival.  The first of two documentaries released in 2019 on the flamboyant lawyer who died of AIDS related complications in 1986 at the age of 59, director Matt Tyrnauer’s approach is a fairly straight-forward telling of Cohn’s life through friends and colleagues and archival interviews with the man himself.  Notoriously unlikable and almost proud of it, my only true exposure to Cohn up until this point was Al Pacino’s award-winning performance in the HBO mini-series Angels in America.

Reaching back to 1951 at the beginning of his career when Cohn was an aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy and assisted in the prosecution of the Rosenbergs, Tyrnauer charts how the closeted attorney used his influence to kick off the Army–McCarthy hearings of 1954.  Hoping to protect a fellow McCarthy aide drafted into service, his dogged pursuit of getting the man out of having to serve wound up backfiring and nearly exposing the private lives of Cohn and possibly McCarthy. Once he left McCarthy’s side he made his way back to New York where he became a trusted council for a number of individuals with ties to organized crime, always finding loopholes or working out deals to avoid jail time for his clients.  A feared legal eagle, Cohn wasn’t shy about wielding his power and enjoyed striking fear into his adversaries and even his close companions.

The last third of the documentary focuses in on Cohn’s relationship with Trump as the real estate magnate enters the big leagues in New York.  Retaining Cohn to provide advice for working the system and bartering the best deals with the least amount of loss, hearing the techniques he taught Trump sounds very familiar to the kind of behavior we see on a daily basis now.  Never admit you’re wrong.  Never apologize.  Claim defeat as victories.  All tactics Cohn pioneered that Trump, as his clear protégé, carries on to this day.

While informative, it’s also a fairly sad documentary because Cohn was such a deeply unhappy and hypocritical man.  Denying his sexuality for years in public though in private it was well known who he spent his time with, he still wanted people to believe he was going to marry Barbara Walters (of all people!), his longtime childhood friend.  Worst of all, when Cohn contracted HIV during a time when hundreds of people were dying from it,  Cohn vehemently squashed rumors he had the disease even as he pushed to be included in experimental treatment being conducted by the National Institute of Health.  This when close friend President Reagan hadn’t even said the word AIDS in public but was helping Cohn get into clinical trials behind closed doors.  Unthinkable.  On one hand, I’m sad for Cohn but on the other he was such a wicked person that there’s a part of you that almost feels his end was a sort of karma for his actions during his life.

The next Cohn documentary is set to air on HBO before the year is out and I’ll be interested to see what new angle it would take to tell us more that we didn’t learn here.  While not a comprehensive view of Cohn’s life, much of his childhood is reduced to small anecdotes by Tyrnauer in favor of focusing on the relationships he developed as an adult, it is informative and gives a good picture of why Cohn was such a polarizing individual to much of the country and why he was a golden god to a select few.  Even now, some of the subjects interviewed seem wary of Cohn’s reach from beyond the grave.