Skip to main content

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle
(2018)

(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.


Set in 1905, Dan Stevens' "Thomas Richardson", all haunted and distracted, arrives on the island of Erisden, seeking to recover his sister, who is – apparently – being ransomed. Disappointingly, this is actually the case; it isn’t a lure à la The Wicker Man, probably because Evans forgets to give this cult a sense of unity that would account for their appeal. Indeed, the motivations of the island’s "elders" are entirely prosaic. Which makes the supernatural element in turn much less interesting; it's laid bare for all to see, such that as soon as it's introduced as a bone fide uncanny element, it's rendered borderline banal. 


One might suggest the fantastical streak is a break with how these tales traditionally play out – that there’s a genuine supernatural source behind the antagonists' eccentric and delusional beliefs borne of isolation from larger society – but I felt it actively reduced the effectiveness of the picture. Indeed, this element is further weighed down by a clumsy character "arc", whereby Stevens' character was left wanting by his Christian God, but the pagan island deity actively embraces him in his hour of need, providing him with meaning and sustenance in the final frame; like much of the picture, it illustrates that, while we know Gareth Evans can direct the shit out of material, he can't write for it. There are so many ways this movie might have gone that could have been rewarding, but instead, we're left scrambling about in reductive genre entrails, ones suggesting Evans is more a Neil Marshall type than someone with a distinctive voice to support his distinctive visual sense.


What Apostle does has going for it – at least during the first hour of its vastly over-inflated running time – is a tug to discover what precisely is going on in this South Wales-filmed milieu. But alas, it's inversely proportional to the dissatisfaction of the pay off. Evans never bothers to give us sufficient insight into the workings of the island community. Everyone has a Book According to the Prophet Malcolm in their rooms, and there's a triumvirate of original arrivals (Michael Sheen's Malcolm, Paul Higgins' Frank and Mark Lewis Jones' Quinn) who hold order and – revealed eventually in several over-expository and unnecessary flashbacks – enslaved the existing inhabitant to their will in order to – very The Wicker Man– guarantee good crops. 


But there's no sense of the organisation of Erisden or the beliefs of the population (Evans has mentioned proto-communism in interviews, but you wouldn’t know it from the movie), with an iron fist of guards in place of any devotion (which is where The Wicker Man got its chills). Likewise, Frank blanches at what’s going on as if he wasn’t aware of the full extent of the atrocities, and Malcolm expresses his wavering involvement – two of the three leaders – yet the trees are filled with corpses and there's a custom-designed gimp with his own fully operational torture chamber. Wouldn't the declining island population have come to the attention of the residents at some point (and if they're on board with the general sacrificial aspect, what with their self-induced bloodletting, why aren't they all desperately fearful about being next)?


Apostle lacks a trace of the depth of The Wicker Man's approach to ritual and belief, or the elegance. Which is unfortunate, as it persistently and actively invites comparison with that classic. Here we have a distracted and incohesive cult, their leaders' various motivations eventually laid out through lumpen dumps of explanatory dialogue that would have been far better left to the imagination, the same with the overt appeal to nature spirits (the blood-infused island acting through a human "Mother Nature" avatar).


Evans occasionally offers an interesting image – a cross on a hill revealed to be the mast of a stranded ship – but on this evidence, he isn't really such an artful director when bereft of bone-crunching, limb- or artery-severing violence; he’s most galvanised when Stevens is spearing a couple of captors, and much more interested in goring his characters, be it fatal trepanning, or removal of digits – or if not dismembering then subjecting them to a stream of effluent – than he is in developing them.


The period dialogue has the occasional flourish, but the script issues are more fundamental; Evans is unable to imbue a sense of how this community has operated for what must be several decades, and would rather distract us with obvious folk horror imagery (children in masks, ritual cave paintings). Most problematic is his tendency to over-telegraph. "Your eyes, they've seen things" says Ffion (Kristine Froseth) of Thomas. "Who are you?" she asks, as if Batman has arrived on the island (his flashbacks would also have been much better left out; Evans feels the need to have him branded with a giant cross, for goodness' sake). Stevens has found a niche playing against his looks of late, but this pales next to The Guest or Legion, and he frequently comes across as if he's caricaturing previous, better roles.


Out of the supporting cast, Lewis Jones creates a memorably loathsome antagonist as Quinn, unnaturally obsessed with daughter Ffion and jealous of Malcom's reign. Unfortunately, these traits rather underline his B-movie baddie status, the kind who elicits a cathartic cheer as he's bashed about the head while having his chest ripped open. Sheen is good 'n' all, with a big bushy beard, but both he and Higgins are required to breathe life into mostly empty vessels. 


None of this is to deny Evans' skills as a filmmaker. While indulgently overlong, Apostle is quite watchable. It just isn't very well written. There's barely a scene that isnt derivative of something else (the island "exploding" at the end even put me in mind of The Land That Time Forgot) which means it isn’t really doing its job of drawing you in. There's an argument that, like Marshall's work, he's making unashamedly cheesy exploitation cinema and so Apostle is doing exactly what it says on the tin. But at the same time, it seems to want to be something more than that, that Evans doesn't just want to be regarded as an action maestro. Unfortunately, he only manages to make you think you've seen this all before, in a slightly different order or arrangement and done better. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

How many galoshes died to make that little number?

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
(SPOILERS) Looney Tunes: Back in Action proved a far from joyful experience for director Joe Dante, who referred to the production as the longest year-and-a-half of his life. He had to deal with a studio that – insanely – didn’t know their most beloved characters and didn’t know what they wanted, except that they didn’t like what they saw. Nevertheless, despite Dante’s personal dissatisfaction with the finished picture, there’s much to enjoy in his “anti-Space Jam”. Undoubtedly, at times his criticism that it’s “the kind of movie that I don’t like” is valid, moving as it does so hyperactively that its already gone on to the next thing by the time you’ve realised you don’t like what you’re seeing at any given moment. But the flipside of this downside is, there’s more than enough of the movie Dante was trying to make, where you do like what you’re seeing.

Dante commented of Larry Doyle’s screenplay (as interviewed in Joe Dante, edited by Nil Baskar and G…

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …