Apostle [2018] – An Ambitious yet Unremarkable Horror/Mystery

Welsh film-maker Gareth Huw Evans’ Indonesian action flicks The Raid: Redemption (2011) and The Raid 2: Berandal (2014) I reckon were the perfect guilty pleasure movies, bedecked with intensely violent action sequences and uncomplicated plot-line. Martial artist and actor Iko Uwais pitted against machete-twirling, baseball bat-swinging psychopaths has offered grimly fascinating action extravaganza. Now the Welshman with his latest film Apostle (2018) has turned to folk horror, taking cues from British cult horrors of 70s (especially The Wicker Man). Evans has written Apostle, long before he went to Indonesia with his wife and stumbled upon the job to direct a documentary on silat martial art, where he met Iko Uwais (and later collaborated with him in three martial arts action films). Evans does establish himself as a good storyteller in Apostle as much as precisely staging those kinetic martial arts sequences. But unfortunately, the plot suffers from too much of clumsy turns and contrivances to provide an emotionally affecting experience.

Set in the year 1905, Thomas Richardson (Legion fame Dan Stevens), an ex-missionary and son of a wealthy Englishman, is charged with rescuing his sister (Elen Rhys), who is held for ransom by a pagan cult holing-up in the remote island of Erisden. Thomas arrives at the island after carefully switching his boarding documents with those of another passenger so as to evade his sister’s kidnappers. The island and its inhabitants seem to hail straightly from medieval Europe as they worship a real blood-seeking earth goddess. The groups of settlers are led by the self-styled prophet and egalitarian Malcom (Michael Sheen). He promises a life with moral decency and good work, and freedom from onerous taxations.

The dark underpinnings behind Malcolm’s vision of peace and social harmony are ascertained from his gang of raging enforcers. Within few nights in the island, Thomas discovers odd rituals in the village, for example the jars of blood the residents leave outside their bedroom doors every night. Thomas wanders the night with torchlight to try and understand what’s really going on and find out where his sister is kept. Meanwhile, two young lovers keep their night-time encounters secret, which later brings devastating consequences. Moreover, Thomas acquaints himself with Malcolm’s unsuspecting, good-hearted daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton). In the subsequent quest to save his sister, Thomas has to endure supernatural forces and outwit the savagery of religious nuts.

If Apostle works to an extent, it’s because of the right actors (particularly Michael Sheen was a good choice) and Evans’ ability to conjure atmospheric, isolationist terror out of the medieval setting. The claustrophobia eked out from the unforgiving island adds a disturbing immediacy to the narrative (captured with muted, period-era color palette). Evans’ script is heavy on atmospheric details but fumbles with character sketches. The characters remain true to their types (savior protagonist, demented despot, naive teenagers, empathetic girl, and so on), and their actions become increasingly cliche as the plot moves forward. What made Wicker Man such a wonderful horror classic is not just the eerie atmosphere, but also the zealotry expressed by the whole community who initially, on the surface, appear to be very friendly and civil. In Apostle, apart from Malcolm and his disgruntled friends, Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) and Frank (Paul Higgins), we don’t sense the cultural-social paranoia affecting the community.  Malcolm’s flock doesn’t even seem much devoted to the cause.

Although Evans has moved from kinetic action to supernatural horror, his signature intensity glows when he ratchets up the brutality by dropping slow-burn tension for extreme gore. Two scenes involving medieval torture devices are effectively choreographed in order to elevate the genre pleasures. In fact, the expansive macabre elements partly make up for the flawed writing. Apostle does offer a timeless as well as timely commentary on the madness of religious fervor and savagery of power-hungry men. The image of a god literally kept in captive and perpetually gifted with the blood of innocents serves as a invective commentary on human’s exploitation of religious faith. But such themes are only presented in a muddled manner and gets lost in a forgettable narrative. Altogether, Apostle (129 minutes) is visually striking, super-gory, cult-society horror that lacks great deal of emotional weight.


A Look Back at Portrayal of A.I. In Cinema

The titan Prometheus, who stole the fire of gods for humankind, was chained to a rock in mount Caucasus for eternity, where his liver is fed upon daily (which regenerated due to his immortality) by an eagle. Similarly, human history is full of Prometheus-like personalities whose quest for knowledge transgressed boundaries erected by dogmas and superstitions. But 'playing God' was often frowned upon by unambiguous moral parables in literature and cinema. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), humans were repeatedly warned of a dystopian future where robots would rise up to annihilate their masters. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written long before the concept of A.I. or its related dark stories came into play. Yet the fascinating novel warned us of the perils of creating artificial life that lacks the emotionality and intuition of human life. Nevertheless, human understanding of science kept growing manifold to make the bizarre dream-logic of Mary Shelley’s tale into a palpable reality.

In 1942, prolific and popular science-fiction author Isaac Asimov coined The Three Laws of Robotics, forging the pivotal themes for robotic or AI-based fiction. The three laws referred to in numerous books and movies also went on to generate impact upon understanding the ethics of Artificial intelligence. Long before Asimov’s laws, visionary German film-maker Fritz Lang designed the robotic Maria (played by Brigitte Helm) for his ground-breaking expressionist sci-fi Metropolis (1927). The film showcased a semi-utopia where human workers of the underground are stuck in a painful routine in order to ensure that everything above ground is perfect. Furthermore, to maintain the immaculate quality of the Metropolis, the robotic Maria is programmed to repress any societal uprising. Lang’s masterful compositions and rich environment detail naturally served as an inspiration for generations of film-makers.

While the depiction of AI in 21st century cinema isn’t as vituperative as the earlier works, the fear of artificial intelligence’s influence on the community is still a very hot topic. Hence this following remarkable infographic from Brian Thomas of Enlightened Digital on the history of cinematic representation of AI, I reckon will serve as a fine introductory point to broach on this vital subject matter:

Thanks to Brian Thomas, (Enlightened-Digital) for the intriguing inforgraphic on A.I. in the Movies

In films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), AI was shown to serve and protect mankind. In Kubrick’s masterpiece, however, the spaceship operating system known as HAL 900 comes to the conclusion that it can properly serve humans by only taking control of them. The quietly menacing red-eye of HAL 900 depicts what the AI considers as an easy solution when burdened with a paradox or conflict: to get rid of disobedient humans. Gradually, the AI turned from being robotic to anthropomorphic. In George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’ franchise, AIs served as good companions to humans and to each other. In the Terminator and The Matrix Franchise, artificial intelligence joined forces to authoritatively control humans and even their reality. However, Steven Spielberg’s 2001 sci-fi drama ‘Artificial Intelligence’ was a game changer in cinema’s portrayal of humanoid robots. This time viewers were emotionally attuned to anguish and yearnings of an AI kid searching his mother.

Recent depictions of AI have been increasingly ambiguous. Alex Garland’s low-budget sci-fi Ex Machina (2014) establishes the inevitability of A.I. breaking its shackles placed by the self-centered mankind. Ava (played by Alicia Vikander) in Ex-Machina feels more alive than her human counterparts, although like humans she manipulates, lies and makes survival her topmost priority. Similarly, in HBO series ‘WestWorld’ ‘humanoid robot’ hosts are designed as objects to show humans a good time in a futuristic theme park. But when the robots crave for freedom devastation follows. Movies like Her (2013), Robot and Frank (2012), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and the recent pulpy action sci-fi Upgrade (2018) had begun to talk of co-existence as the differences (physical and emotional) separating humans from android are shown to be blurred. This exhibits the way forward to futuristic portrayal of A.I. story. Rather than pit malevolent A.I. against persecuted humans and vice-versa, the A.I. in the movies are becoming equivocal and three-dimensional characters.

RBG [2018] – A Hagiographic Yet Compelling Account on one of the Pivotal Figures of American Judiciary

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a soft-spoken yet steely octogenarian Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. Her dissenting opinions at the Supreme Court, unmatched work ethic, and life-long fight for gender equality in the courtroom has not only made her a formidable force in the judicial circuit, but also bestowed upon her the pop-culture icon status. Millennial youths and legion of liberals have turned her into a rock-star, a meme, a T-shirt, and an affectionate signifier – Notorious R.B.G.  Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s documentary RBG (2018) tries to track down Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life in a linear fashion, starting from her childhood, girlhood to the current position as America’s liberal legal icon. Obviously, Julie and Betsy’s RBG is a hagiography, whose traditional (superficial) approach mainly feeds off the mythology created around the judge by the meme-addicted culture. Thankfully, Julie and Betsy have brought in Ruth Ginsburg herself to flesh out her own tale, which doesn’t make the hagiographic overreach so nauseating.

For a large part RBG, the woman of short stature and quiet speech, effectively showcases her powerful legal mind without resorting to irritating gregariousness. The film-makers show the kind of urgency to turn Ruth’s life into a woman empowerment story. The approach is akin to the mentality of desperate people in internet attempting to create a cult of personality, and in turn forgetting or not caring about the inherent groundbreaking qualities of the person. Nevertheless, the film-makers’ patience in engaging good amounts of sit-down time with the lady herself remains the documentary’s truly upbeat aspect. Julie and Betsy may not have offered profound insights into the Supreme Court Justice’s legal mind, although when Ruth Ginsburg graces the screen (as we listen to her velvety voice) we could perceive her power and persistence.

RBG opens in a brash manner with a montage of US government Washington monuments, while in the background the extreme remarks on the Supreme Court Judge is played out (including a remark from Donald Trump). Then, RBG appears on-screen and quotes the words of Sarah Grimke (written in 1838), a noted abolitionist and member of the women's suffrage movement:I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” The words naturally strike a chord for many even in the modern world. The film-makers has done archival sifting and conducted interviews with the judge's family, associates, and friends. They quickly assemble a portrait of a shy, studious Brooklynite, born to Jewish immigrants. Ruth Ginsburg reveals she has adhered to her mom’s advice (who died of cancer when her daughter was 17): “Be a lady and be independent”. Ruth makes a fine definition of the word ‘lady’: a person making her points with politeness. The second part of advice (‘be independent’) is evident in the way she has shaped her legal career by often taking cases that bolster her argument for gender equality.

There was also considerable focus on the unusually smooth marriage between Ruth and Marty Ginsburg, a highly skilled tax attorney who felt comfortable playing second fiddle to his super-star wife. The talking-heads include RBG’s son and daughter, who explain the struggles and joys of growing up with such a unique mother. Interviews with recent Harvard law graduate granddaughter Clare Spera gives some insight into RBG’s workaholic behavior (working until at least 3 am and yet arriving to the court by 9 am), love for opera, etc. As much as detailing the warm relationship RBG had with Marty, Julie and Betsy doesn’t present a clear-sighted analysis of the hard-working lawyer’s victory on the courts. Except for spelling out the strategy Ruth Ginsburg formulated in the 1970s to expand constitutional protections against gender discrimination case by case (which included even taking a case of gender discrimination against a male), the treatment of Ginsburg’s legal victories are reduced to rhetorics. Of course, it’s not possible to ponder over the complex legal issues involved in the cases, but the direction seems prosaic and hollow.

Ruth Ginsburg was named to the Supreme Court in 1993 by President Clinton (confirmed by a vote of 96 to 3 and became the 2nd female justice of the US Supreme Court) who himself makes an appearance in the documentary and comments on the less partisan period in American politics. Among the glorified aspect of RBG is her true friendship with the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. On commenting about this, feminist activist Brenda Feigen says that RBG possesses this amazing quality to ‘compartmentalize’ and she goes on to quip, “I don’t have close friends who are right-wing nutcases”. And in these times of great ideological divide and partisanship, RBG’s acquaintance with firebrand conservatives seems a wonderful achievement. At the same time, the documentary also notes how her stance on Supreme Court has gradually shifted from center left to far left as the rest of the bench has teetered towards far-right. Hence there was the slew of admirable dissenting opinions from Ruth Ginsburg in recent landmark cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Shelby Counter v. Holder, and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

What’s maddening about the documentary, as I already mentioned, is the film-makers’ extraneous efforts to elevate their subject to a super-hero, when Ruth Ginsburg’s personality and legal work as a judge and advocate itself speaks volumes about her fight for gender equality. The heavy-handed attempts to make her a uni-dimensional ‘badass revolutionary’ or ‘Adorable Dissenter’ (to probably sell more merchandise) didn’t work for me (already an ‘inspirational’ movie is in making with Felicity Jones playing RBG). Nevertheless, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s RBG (97 minutes) is a good starting point to comprehend the tremendous legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 


In This Corner of the World [2016] – A Gorgeously Rendered Ground-Level Perspective of Wartime Japan

Sunao Katabuchi’s crowd-funded third anime feature In This Corner of the World [‘Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni’, 2016] is set at Kure, a thriving port city in Hiroshima prefecture during the wartime Japan of 1930s and 1940s. It brings a vivid, ground-level picturization of the devastation inflicted upon the innocent civilians by the bombing Allied forces and willfully ignorant Japanese Empire. The Japanese home-front struggle, of course, had been covered thoroughly by historical documents and books. Yet nothing beats the experience of watching familiar history through refreshing and humane pair of eyes. In this manner, the anime would be fine companion piece to eye-opening and genuine tear-jerking dramas Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Giovanni’s Island (2014).

Based on Fumiyo Kono’s acclaimed manga, In This Corner of the World unfurls from the point of view of an imaginative young woman Suzu. The manga is clearly for adults and surely has the clear-eyed perception of serious literature. Director Sunao Katabuchi has worked as an assistant director for Hayao Miyazaki (in Kiki’s Delivery Service). His first anime feature Princess Arete (2001) was a typical fairy-tale riddled with feminist themes. Mai Mai Miracle (2009), the 2nd feature, was thematically closer to Katabuchi’s recent film as it is set in the Japanese countryside of 1950s. Mr. Katabuchi has also directed the adaptation of violent manga series Black Lagoon (2006). While Makato Shinkai’s sci-fi fantasy and coming-of-age tale Your Name was a huge block-buster hit at Japanese box-office, thanks to the nation’s teenagers, In This Corner of the World proved to be a sleeper-hit, attracting majority of elder viewers.

Set between the years 1933 and 1945, the anime follows the domestic challenges faced by young Suzu, who lives with her parents and younger sister Sumi at the Eba section of South Hiroshima. She is a daydreamer and shows penchant for drawing and weaving imaginative stories from her uneventful reality. Her right hand profoundly conveys her feelings (in drawing paper) which the mouth only mumbles. For the most part in her life, Suzu doesn’t believe much in herself and hence complies to others wishes. When she turns eighteen, she is married to Shusaku Houjo, a young man from Port City Kure, home to largest Navy military base of Imperial Japan. Shusaku works as a clerk at the local naval base and father-in-law is an engineer for the navy. Mother-in law is a frail woman and so the elaborate household chores fall upon the thin shoulders of Suzu. Suzu’s new home is situated atop a resplendent hillock, surrounded by green fields and overlooking the vast ocean and the intimidating battleships. When the war escalates, Suzu’s sister-in law Keiko and her sweet little daughter Harumi comes to live with the family. Despite tough war-time situation – nighttime air-raids, shell attacks, rationed foods, diseases – and relentless personal tragedies, Suzu who is often blamed for absent-mindedness and imaginative flights, conducts herself as a well-spring for kindness and determination. Although physically and mentally, Suzu doesn’t come unscathed from war and knows there aren’t any happy endings, she finds courage and perseverance from deep within her. In the process, Suzu becomes a memorable face of civilian resilience during war-time devastation.

Sunao Katabuchi’s color palette here is muted and earthy which instantly generates charm and warmth. Katabuchi displays a vivid understanding of the household or domestic rituals of the day. He acutely draws the mundane chores as if it is the only means of providing spiritual solace amidst the overwhelming chaotic social atmosphere of World War II Japan. Thorough research and real-life verbatim accounts has gone into writing, from realizing the myriad of sufferings the civilians faced to showcasing the simplest things like what they wore or what they ate (no one could draw food preparation as beautiful as anime makers) and how the landscape appeared at that time. Katabuchi remarks many of the buildings in the drawings are actualized from the strong memories of the survivors. While the film-maker offers a perfect insider’s perspective of war-time life in Japan, there is none of the melodrama and unconvincing epiphanies we witness in majority of the similar themed narratives. ‘What’s the point of crying for a pity?’ a character says which happens to be general perception of the creators. Even the inevitable dropping of atom bomb in Hiroshima isn’t exploited for unwanted sentimental notes.

Though the narrative is subtle and transcended by its graceful sketchbook aesthetic, In This Corner of the World seems muddled in the first half due to confusing dreamy digressions and rapid introduction of many characters. Some of Suzu’s dreams where she imagines her alternate life paths ends up being a confounding experience than an interesting one. Certain tragedies and disputes are quickly moved through lacking strong emotional resonance. For example, the episode involving Suzu’s brother’s death, the verbal fight she has with husband Shusaku and the weirdly romantic scene (weird because Shusaku almost pushes Suzu into other man’s hands) between Suzu and old childhood friend Tetsu. These sequences comes out of nowhere and it speaks of conflicts which the narrative didn't suggest beforehand. Suzu’s mixed feelings about her husband and her existential angst warrants more depth in the narrative than this episodic treatment. However, the second-half is more clear-sighted and infuses spectrum of emotions to create one deeply resonant singular moment after another: especially, the tragedy involving Harumi is expressed in a manner that never exploits it for few tears and the later reconciliation between Suzu and sister-in law. There’s also an underlying ironic humor affixed to the proceedings that keeps things buoyant.

The gorgeous animation is mostly portrayed as a reflection of Suzu’s vibrant consciousness. At times of suffering and bleakness, the image resembles the watercolors that Suzu paints (as if an illustrated children book comes into life), depicting the woman’s escape into imagination rather than face death and destruction. The idea of frame-within-frame works brilliantly in the scene Suzu encounters the harsh reality of bombs dropping at the city. Katabuchi makes an excellent use of the medium whenever he portrays Suzu’s introspective journey (even a broken windowpane hanging upon a tree becomes colorful canvas in her mind). This along with Katabuchi’s perfect grasp of down-to-earth, quotidian war-time lives of the civilian populace gives the narrative an uplifting and optimistic tone. The anime once again proves the Japanese are still unparalleled when it comes to picturizing simple life in minute details, keeping all the emotions intact [a simple shot of Suzu blowing on the dandelion, whose white seeds float through the air, brings some emotional quality to it than the overtly sentimental works of their American counterparts).

In This Corner of the World (130 minutes) is a captivating character study of a sensitive young Japanese woman in wartime which interestingly dodges familiar sentimentality to yield an intimately human experience. Although it doesn’t match to the depth and crushing sadness of Grave of the Fireflies, it still remains as piercing account of victims of the war.