Tag Archives: film review

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 

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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 

I, Tonya (2017)

6 Jan

There are competitive athletes. There are olympic athletes. And then there is Tonya Harding. The infamous American figure skater (played brilliantly by Margot Robbie) gets her own story in Craig Gillespie‘s explosive new film. Based on true events, the film follows Tonya as she first learns to skate and quickly becomes a project of sorts for her neglectful mother LaVona (Allison Janney) and coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson). Shown with a real talent for moving on the ice, Tonya quickly moves up the ranks of early figure skaters – despite her aversion to “play the part” of a skating champion and dress or act like someone she is not. Eventually, Tonya falls in love with her abusive neighbor Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and the two quickly form a toxic, codependent relationship with one another.  This is where the film really kicks into high gear, and we see the couple spiral out control with drugs, booze, money – and eventually – federal crime.

I Tonya is delivered to us in a pseudo-documentary format with characters looking into the 90’s era VHS camcorder reliving certain events, as if they are testifying to authorities exactly how the story of Tonya went down. It’s a refreshingly Brechtian approach to the true-sports-story model, but at times it feels too jarring and uncomfortable. As if the docu-VHS bits weren’t enough –  in the dramatic scenes we occasionally see characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, ala House of Cards style.

This film is so loud (it’s no stretch of the mind to imagine every word of dialogue in Steven Roger’s script being in all caps) and constantly trying to outdo itself. I, Tonya seems to take place in a universe where its characters can’t go 5 minutes without throwing expletives (or sometimes sharp objects) at each other; characters on screen seem so bombastic and dramatic that after a while they begin to feel less like real people and more like characictures. You can’t help but wonder what this story would be had it been written with a bit more character nuance.

One of the great strengths of the film comes with it’s clever use of absurdist comedy. I, Tonya is painfully funny and even the dullest bits of melodrama get sewn in with a clever joke or two.  Compellingly crafted, the film seems designed to appeal directly to the ADD, short-attention-span viewer, and the ferocious editing job keeps the entire thing from spinning off the wheels. Again, I would have appreciated a bit more restraint with the storytelling, but the narrative never becomes dull or disinteresting; somehow the 2 hour runtime feels like minutes. Perhaps I, Tonya deserves some kind of medal for that.

Bottom Line: With an overdose of teenage vitriol, I, Tonya is a firecracker examination of class division and a metaphorical middle-finger towards the cultural ideal of American celebrity.

Rating: 6.9/10 

Film Recipe: Bernie + The Big Short + The Bronze

Mother! (2017)

15 Sep

Move over Lars von Trier, there is a new provocateur in town.

Darren Aronofsky‘s latest film Mother makes a return to the psychological horror the director made a name of himself for with Black Swan, Piand most notably Requiem for a Dream.  Never one for subtlety, Aronofsky enters full-bore, envelope-pushing mode here and, in turn, creates one of the most ambitious and boldest films to be produced by a major studio this decade.

Playing the role of Mother and Him respectively, Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem are a seemingly happy couple living in a remote countryside house so he can focus on his poetry. From the film’s opening moments however, we realize that the couple isn’t quite as happy together as they ought to be. He has an empty frustration sustained from a lack of creative inspiration and Mother seems disillusioned and dissatisfied with the lack of romance in the relationship. This is where the mysterious doctor (Ed Harris, whose character is referred to simply as Man) makes an appearance and becomes the first in a series of unwelcome visitors.

The series of narrative events that follow seem to ping-pong between a haunted house mystery, domestic melodrama, psychological thriller, and allegorical horrorshow that escalates to madness as the film progresses. Aronofsky is a master at diving deep into the headspace of his characters (often with disturbingly nihilistic results) and we witness the chaotic events unfold from Mother’s point of view without missing a beat. Scenes are beautifully shot by frequent Aronofsky collaborator Matt Libatique and stitched together by editor Andrew Weisblum. The film seems to take on a time and space of its own making; events don’t necessarily flow from one to the next as much as they seem to be taking place all at once simultaneously – or perhaps not even occurring at all. It’s obvious that Aronofsky is trying to provoke the hell out of his audience, and he has a masterful knowledge of film language to do just that with tremendous effect. As with any great piece of cinema, every aspect of the frame and beyond works in conjunction with the whole of the story to accomplish a specific vision. Here, Aronofsky’s goal is to deliver a tour de force of Mother’s ever-changing perspective to the audience in a brazen, unrelinquished fashion.

Bottom Line: Mother! is an unflinching allegorical nightmare running on all cylinders and a masterful showcase for Aronofsky’s audacious and unapologetic vision.   

Rating: 9.6/10 

Film recipe: Dogville + Repulsion + copious amounts of chaos, nihilism, misogyny, and anxiety

 

Person to Person (Sundance 2017)

19 Aug

New York City has been an integral part of American cinema for decades. One only has to look through the films of Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch or Martin Scorsese to see how powerfully the historic and iconic city is put on display – sometimes even becoming a character within itself. In Dustin Guy Defa’s new film Person to  Person, the city provides a backdrop where a colorful bunch of characters are let loose. An impressive ensemble piece, we first are introduced to Bene (Benne Coopersmith), a music enthusiast and record collector who is tipped off to connect with someone selling a limited edition vinyl.  Then there is Wendy and Melanie (Tavi Gevinson and Olivia Luccardi respectively), a pair of high school girlfriends who talk about weather their romantic flirtations with men collide with their feminist ideals. Claire (Abbi Jacobson) and Phil (Micheal Cera) are a pair of journalists who are investigating what is either a murder or suicide, and then Ray (George Sample III) is suffering the repercussions of having just broken up with his girlfriend (the reasons being are too good to be spoiled here). There are an assortment of other characters as well who come and go, providing the narrative surprises that coalesce over a single day in the city.

Dustin Guy Defa has a real talent for dialogue, and the characters he creates all feel so fresh and genuine. Shot on stunning 16mm, Person to Person looks stunning, and paired with the groovy jazz and neo-soul soundtrack, the film feels like it was lifted straight out of 70’s television. Luckily, the film never leans too hard into nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, and the interconnected stories are interesting enough to keep us invested without the vintage aesthetic.

Seamlessly edited from one moment to the next, Dustin Guy Drefe creates the type of experience that seems directly aimed at anyone who has ever watched an older Woody Allen film and thought “man, they sure don’t make movies like this anymore.”  Well – now they do.

Bottom Line: Taking the form of a vintage love letter to New York City, Person to Person is a beautiful cinematic examination of the intricacies of various human relationships.

Rating: 7.7/10 

Film Recipe: Coffee and Cigarettes + Magnolia