Archive | 2018 RSS feed for this section

Mandy (2018 Sundance)

15 Sep

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but somewhere in the 2000’s or perhaps 2010’s there was a collective cultural reawakening and renewed appreciation for the actor Nicolas Cage. Perhaps it was due to the broadening of meme culture and prevalence of GIFs as a viable communication tool. Perhaps it’s entirely due to the infamy of Neil LaBute‘s unnecessary remake of The Wickerman which is often cited as being one of the best (worst?) of the so-bad-it’s-great horror collection. Or maybe it had something to do with fan-made “greatest hits” video mashups of the thespian’s most outlandish moments. Whatever the reason, the Chuck Norris of the internet age had gone from acclaimed dramatic actor to C-movie superstar with roles in such abysmal works like Knowing, Drive Angry, and Left Behind.   

And then we get to Mandy, the follow-up from the elusive director of Beyond the Black RainbowPanos Cosmatos. Premiering in the Midnight section at the Sundance Film Festival, Mandy is exactly the sort of thing that the best midnight movies are made of. Cage stars alongside Andrea Riseborough (playing the titular character Mandy) as a woodsman hauling trees somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The two appear to be husband and wife, and have settled themselves comfortably away from civilization in a remote mountian lodge.  One day as Mandy is out for a morning jog, she crosses paths with an eclectic group of self-identified “Jesus Freaks” who then kidnap poor Mandy to be used as some sort of cosmic, ritualistic sacrifice.

Mandy is essentially two separate hour-long films; the first half being the more surreal, psychedelic, visually-impressive storytelling that we are familiar with Cosmatos doing so well in Beyond the Black Rainbow. Scene by scene, the pulsating music, visuals, and 80’s aesthetic become so overwhelming that one becomes simultaneously distanced and hypnotized by the dreamstate that unfolds.  Characters ramble on and on about cosmic deities and philosophical musings and destiny and the nature of good and evil. Things make absolutely no narrative sense but you don’t really don’t care because Cosmatos believes so intensely in his unique drug-fuelled vision and the vivid details carry the film far above its C-level script. One becomes increasingly less-concerned with why and more transfixed with how things happen as the film progresses.  This part of Mandy looks and feels like a painting lifted straight out of a 1992-era Dungeons & Dragons game manual and the scenes are crafted with such Kubrickian-like artistry rarely seen in cinema today.

Eventually one part of the story bleeds into the next and the hallucinatory effect of Cosmatos’ cinema-drug starts to wear off as various images emerge and dissipate. A burned body….. cloaked figures chanting in a circle…. and….. is that Nicolas Cage forging a battle axe?!? Suddenly the lucid dream we were experiencing comes to halt and we are snapped into a vicious action story centered around a vodka-infused character (Nicholas Cage) out for blood.  Here the film completely embraces Cage’s legacy as the gaudy cult-icon he has become and events go from mildly absurd to full-bore bonkers as Cosmatos turns the Outrageous dial up to 11.  Mandy never enters full on camp territory however, even as Nic Cage breaks the fourth wall to stare directly into the camera and give his signature “You Don’t Say” face (soaked in blood this time, of course); Cosmatos is so committed to his vision that things still feel cemented in a serious story – even when moments become outlandishly bizarre.

By the end of Mandy, I found myself mentally and physically exhausted. This film takes you on a journey and steeps its way deep into the subconscious long after viewing. It’s definitely not for everyone, but those inclined toward midnight genre fare are in for a treat.

Bottom Line: While some might have a hard time with the film’s slower, more metaphysical first half, Mandy rewards patient viewers with an all-out assault on the senses that culminates into a truly original and exciting viewing experience. 

Rating: 7.6 / 10

Film Recipe: Enter the Void + The Evil Dead pt II + Beyond the Black Rainbow + The Visitor 

Advertisements

Puzzle (2018)

26 Aug

Married housewife and mother of two teenage boys, Angus (Kelly Mcdonald) is having an existential crisis. She has spent the last 25 years married to Louie (David Denman), a kind-hearted father and husband but one who is completely oblivious to his wife’s internal struggles and desires.  Directed by long-time indie producer Marc Turtletaub (Little Miss Sunshine, Loving), Puzzle follows Agnus’ personal struggle as she tries to self-assess her future and cope with the anxieties of her marital relationship by becoming obsessed with jigsaw puzzles.

Angus’ life is one of complacency. She spends the days tediously cleaning house, shopping, and attentively participating in her local church group’s social activities. Drifting aimlessly in the mundane space between depression and contentment, the film opens on her birthday where she receives two items that change the course of her life. The first, a smart phone completely overwhelms her; “Why can’t I just call them on my home phone like I’m used to?” she asks he children. The second, a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, which captures her attention almost immediately and sets her on a course to meet Robert (Irrfan Khan), a competitive puzzle-solving enthusiast.  The two form an odd, but endearing relationship which serves at the catalyst for Agnus to begin questioning her constraining domestic life.

Taking cues straight from indie-dramas playbook, Puzzle disappointingly is a bit too predictable in its narrative. While we might have seen shades of this movie many times before, Turtletaub brings enough power to the film though quiet, nuanced moments that begin to compound on one another as the film progresses (more drama is revealed through facial expressions of one particular moment where Angus examines herself in a mirror than can be found in any Marvel movie). Of course, a film like this would disintegrate if not for MacDonald’s stellar portrayal of an imperfect but still deeply likeable protagonist. She fits the role like a glove and brings nuance to her character even when the screenplay demands to be overly saccharine.

The same can not be said for her husband Louie. As good as a performance Denman gives, he is deeply typecast and envokes nearly every lousy-husband trope imaginable complete with contrived one-liners like “puzzles are for little kids Agnus” or “cooking isn’t a man’s job to do.”

Still, Puzzle is more that the sum of its separate parts, and the film manages to make a successful U-turn from its rocky first act into a nicely quiet and mature examination of a woman in crisis. All without any unnecessary chutzpah of high-stakes melodrama.

Bottom Line: Though it leans a bit too much into its unearned sentimentality, Puzzle eventually embodies a subtle and affecting story about self-assessment complete with a superb performance by Kelly Macdonald. 

 

Rating: 6.2

Film Recipe: LaggiesThe Ice Storm 

 

Sorry To Bother You (Sundance 2018)

13 Jul

After spending years in development hell, rapper-turned-director Boots Riley‘s dark satire Sorry To Bother You finally hit the big screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and quickly became one of the buzziest titles of the festival.

Set in a not-too-distant-future of Oakland, the film follows Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) and his activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) as they try to save up cash with plans to finally move out of Cassius’ uncle’s garage. Cassius takes up a job as a telemarketer, where he struggles to make sales until he discovers the magic secret: putting on his “white voice” when talking with potential customers.  Cue the post-Obama racial satire as Cassius quickly climbs the ranks of telemarketing and begins to unravel a string of dark secrets brought on by corporate figurehead Mr. Lift (Armie Hammer).

Shot on a minimal budget and produced with the self-described “stone-soup” method (every new crew member brings something big to the table to collaborate on) Sorry To Bother You has a renegade punk vibe embedded within its DNA. Thompson and Stanfield both give incredibly bold performances and help the more outlandish lines of dialogue seem grounded within the film’s unique reality.  A supporting cast with Danny Glover, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, and voicework by Patton Oswalt and David Cross help create the vividly colorful world the film lives in.

It becomes apparent during the first 15 minutes that writer/director Boots Riley has stacked his script full of details that lift the film above a cultural pedestal and into a world of its own. The story goes from being socially provocative to radically ambitious to levels of Charlie Kauffman-esc meta-satire referencing everything from social activist culture to gentrification to celebrity status in the digital age to the meme-ification of fake news to the ever-present display of corporate America. Seriously, there are more ideas floated around in the first act of Sorry To Bother You than you will find in the most viral of Ted Talks.  Not all of the cultural commentary sticks however, and some ideas feel senselessly shoehorned into the plot for little or no reason. Still, Riley clearly has a passion for his chaotic mess, and even in its most confusing or cartoonish moments Sorry To Bother You thrives off its ever-emanating creative energy and ambition. Coincidentally, this unique gem ends up being a lot of fun in the process.

Bottom Line: While Sorry To Bother You makes more sense as a haphazard cultural collage than a narrative film, the ideological soup the film creates is impressively ambitious and wildly entertaining. 

Rating: 8.2/10 

Film Recipe: Get Out + Being John Malkovich + Office Space + Dear White People

Hereditary (2018)

9 Jun

Judging from the title alone, you wouldn’t think a movie called Hereditary would be the kind of thing to keep you wide awake at night thinking demons have run amok in your house. Though it was appropriately placed in the Midnight section for its premier at this year’s Sundance, the description in the film guide made it seem like a dysfunctional family indie drama in the same vein as something like The Squid and the Whale. That is not the case. Make no mistake, this film fits squarely in the horror realm – and just might be the most eerily effective one to come along in decades.

Hereditary‘s premise is simple enough: after the untimely death of her mother, Annie (Toni Collette) tries to mend the emotional gaps with her strained and distant family. Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) though loving, is unsupportive and detached while her adolescent son Peter (Alex Wolff) tries to spend every waking moment partying with his friends and away from the family. Strangely, Annie gets closest with her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) after the funeral, though she soon learns that Charlie may have inherited a few ghastly traits from her late grandmother. Annie’s journey in discovering her family history leads her to cross paths with a spiritualist (Ann Dowd) and a few other-worldly beings.

With a runtime of over 2 hours, Hereditary feels a bit weighty from the get go and takes its time getting to the spooks. Patience is rewarded big time during a shocking mid-point twist and things really get cranked up a notch during an emotionally brutal third act. There are moments of almost-unbearable tension in Hereditary; director Ari Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski should get all the credit for their amazing work at commanding attention to various parts of the frame in the heat of the moment – even when it’s deeply troubling. Aster is particularly great at creating atmosphere and subverting audience expectations, even those who are well versed in the genre. It’s clear that the first-time director is familiar with great psychological storytellers like Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Polanski; comparisons to The Shining are not that far off.

Unfortunately, the highs of the film are diluted by it’s lengthy runtime that fails to justify itself. There are too many stretched out periods of little substance in the film that drain the terrifying power from it’s better moments (of which there are more than one) so that the real terror fails to be sustained from scene-to-scene. Trim off 10 or 15 minutes and you would have a bona fide horror masterpiece – instead we have some incredibly great scenes sandwiched by lots of filler.

Still, the peaks of Hereditary are just so damn high – usually without resorting to the cheap jump scares audiences have become accustomed to. The performances are all on-point and bring a sense of realism which grounds the superstitious subject matter of spirits and demons. Newcomer Milly Shapiro, in particular, is absolutely fantastic as Charlie and steals every scene she is in. This is a bold piece of cinema, one that boils with intensity and lingers in the subconscious long after the credits roll.

Bottom Line: Although the lengthy runtime tragically dampens the impact of its spookier scenes, Hereditary displays a chilling cinematic intensity and contains some of the boldest and (most importantly) scariest moments in contemporary horror.

Rating: 7.5/10

Film recipe: The Shining + Bug + Paranormal Activity 

You Were Never Really Here (2018)

22 Apr

“I want you to hurt them.”

This final verbalized directive is given to a contract killer named Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) by New York State Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) halfway through Lynne Ramsay‘s brilliant You Were Never Really Here. It might as well also be Ramsey’s personal motto towards her audience.  In her follow-up to the 2012 psychological drama We Need To Talk About KevinRamsey again delivers a dark, emotional, powerhouse of a movie, lead by a foreboding performance from Joaquin Phoenix.

The acclaimed actor is seen here bearded and brooding as a jaded hitman-for-hire living with his elderly mother in a NYC suburb. His presence is fearsome and physical; it’s obvious from closeups of numerous scars and Joe’s sunken eyes that this is a man who has endured numerous physical and emotional traumas. Ramsey keeps the plotting incredibly tight – very little is said to us upfront but the narrative table is set through a series of visual details. The ripping sound of duct-tape.. a bloody hammer.. Joe’s fingers tracing a small photograph before lighting the thing on fire. Most of the action in You Were Never Really Here takes place just outside of the cinematic frame, but we feel the entire ominous weight of its lingering brutality. Through it all, Phoenix stays poised but frantic, speaking mostly in mumbles and wandering through city streets like a shell of the person he once was.  Joe is a someone who is becomes exponentially both delicate and brawny as the film progresses and he gets wrapped up in a seedy network of conspiracy and violence.

Though there is very little dialogue in the film, You Were Never Really Here is anything but quiet, thanks in part to the anxious and bubbling score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. The film’s sound design is also noteworthy; small textual details like the grinding of a car engine or the brush of a towel against flesh are magnified. It’s a highly viceral film – one that’s deeply cynical and moody but always feeling alive and fresh thanks to Ramsay’s unique vision and directorial talent.  The juxtaposition of various sounds, visuals, and textures leads to an immersive fever dream at points, and the the film’s knack for shifting between the world’s and Joe’s points of view is used with jarring results.

Bottom Line: Lynne Ramsay’s heavy display of a traumatized psyche in You Were Never Really Here is an artistically vibrant, immersive, and anxiety-ridden experience. 

Rating: 8.6/10 

Film recipe: Taxi Driver + The Rover + Leon The Professional 

A Quiet Place (2018)

6 Apr

Hot off the heels of its SXSW debut comes John Krasinski‘s A Quiet Place. A title that might as well be taken literally, as Krasinski’s film is indeed a muffled one, set in a post-apocalyptic future where creatures with super-listening abilities have taken over humanity by detecting the slightest of noises and hunting humans as their prey. This forces all survivors to live in near silence, communicating only by sign language and taking a variety of precautions to minimize any form of sound.  Krasinski stars alongside his wife (Emily Blunt) as an unnamed couple with three small children, one of which is deaf (Millicent Simmonds). Together they must adjust to their new way of living or become the latest victims to be devoured by CGI monsters.

A Quiet Place starts out well enough by introducing us to the family through a series of visual cues. It doesn’t take long before we realize what happens when things aren’t so quiet in Krasinski’s quiet place, and part of the fun lies in seeing the intricate, almost ritualistic precautions our protagonist has established in order to keep his family safe. After a dramatic midpoint however, the film slowly becomes distilled to a paint-by-numbers horror that’s littered with genre trappings.  As with all horror films, one should check his or her disbelief in at the door, but there comes a time in A Quiet Place where a series of increasingly questionable scenarios stops being scary and starts becoming laughably absurd.

Krasinski, mostly known as Jim from The Office, is pulling double duty as actor and director, though he isn’t really given a lot to work with in the dramatic department other than play your typical Overprotective Dad. Blunt also falls victim to a cookiecutter character, though she amps up the horror well enough to hold tension through some of the film’s creepiest moments. A minimalist story like this would greatly benefit from being rooted in more complex character work but Krasinski is so devoted to his Shut-Up-Or-Be-Killed mantra that we hardly see any dialogue take place other than variations of  “Shhh! the monster is nearby…”

There is a lot to work with here and Krasinski shows promise behind the camera; a few indoor scenes are very well-composed resulting in effective claustrophobic tension and both performances from the child actors are solid. But the film keeps visiting familiar territory too often, so it comes as no surprise that when A Quiet Place tries to go off with a bang (both literally and figuratively) it ends up feeling more like a quiet sizzle.

It boasts a few well-crafted pieces of minimalist tension, but implausible story elements and an overreliance on horror tropes prevent A Quiet Place from being anything more than generic (but still kinda spooky) fare. 

Rating: 6.3/10 

Film Recipe: SignsIt Comes At Night + Don’t Breathe 

Flower (2018)

26 Mar

No subgenre of film is so elusive as the indie teenage romantic comedy.  Take some time to browse through any program guide of SXSW or Sundance from the last two decades and you’ll see that independent film history is rich with varied examples of offbeat and angsty teens falling in and out of love. Sometimes, it works (look no further than the aptly titled First Girl I Loved or the nuanced sleeper The Spectacular Now) but more often than not, you end up with a smorgasbord of character tropes, bad sex jokes, and dialogue from writers who’ve seemingly forgotten how teenagers actually behave.  It’s common knowledge that teens are complicated – why is it so hard for their films to be as well?

In Flower, the painful combo of teen-romance-movie-misfires intercedes with gags about sexual assault and pedophillia. Because nothing says funny like trying to figure out if a highschool teacher is into little boys or little girls.

The film starts of with a cop engaging in felatio with our underage hero Erica (Zoey Deutch) who then blackmails him in exchange for cash. We then learn that Erica has made a habit of engaging with older men and then blackmailing them in order to save up enough to bail out her absent father from jail. If you are questioning Erica’s motives here don’t worry, she literally tells a stranger she has daddy issues, just in case there was any confusion to the audience. Her distant mother (Kathryn Hahn) has been dating guy-after-guy ever since her Erica’s father was locked up, and she finally settles with generic Bob (Tim Heidecker) whose son Luke (Joey Morgan) has just graduated rehab and is about to live with the family, much to Erica’s disdain.

There is also a shoehorned subplot here about the aforementioned child-molester (Adam Scott doing his usual shtick) but the heart of the story rests with Erica and Luke’s relationship as new step-siblings from very different worlds trying to get along with each other.  Erica is popular, outgoing, and has a nifty group of friends; Luke is introverted, lonely, into comic books and prone to panic attacks.

Flower tries to be a subversive take on the paint-by-numbers teen sex comedy, but more often than not the jokes fall flat and the characters seem out of place and counterfeit. Erica is such a bad example of the white-rebel-naughty-girl trope that it would be satirical if the film was more self-aware; I was expecting the production design to feature a poster of Harley Quinn on her bedroom wall, but nope – just your typical PARENTAL ADVISORY sign.  Luke, thanks entirely to Joey Morgan’s performance (easily the best thing about this movie), is a bit more tolerable when he isn’t being fed nonsensical lines of dialogue. But even our subdued foil to our protagonist is subject to one of the most bizzare tonal shifts as the movie stumbles into it’s hasty third act. Watching the final segment of Flower is a bit like watching a youtube clip of a drag race where the car starts skidding out of control – you know it’s going to crash and burn eventually but you have to keep watching in order to see how it all goes down.

Bottom Line: Instead of the authentic examination of teenage sexuality it tries to be, Flower is a cringe-worthy and awkward take that tries to get a pass with an inexcusably-awful third act. 

Rating: 4.1 /10

Film Recipe: Juno + Hard Candy + Never Goin’ Back