Tag Archives: film review

Mandy (2018 Sundance)

3 Feb

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 


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  

Atomic Blonde (2017)

29 Jul

1989 Berlin. The wall is just a few days short of tumbling down and tensions between the East and the West halves of the city have never been higher. This is the setting we are placed in while being introduced to a British M16 spy Lorraine (Charlize Theron) who has been assigned to meet with David Percival (James McAvoy), a German operative who has sensitive information pertaining to both American, British, and Russian interests which could unravel an international conspiracy. The events of Atomic Blonde are mostly presented to us in flashback, as Lorraine is presenting her side of the story under interrogation by British and American authorities (Toby Jones, and John Goodman, respectively).  

What starts out as a simple spy thriller premise quickly unfolds into a stylish and sleek action film, filled to the brim with neon lights, martial arts, and shootouts. Unfortunately, much of the action comes at the expense of the characters, who come across as simple, two-dimensional cutouts from spy movie cliches.  The nonsensical story goes to great lengths to distract us from simple plot holes; what should have been fleshed out in the writer’s room gets covered up with the attention-grabbing, one-take fight scene or the frequent german rock song blasting out the speakers. Oh, and in case you forgot this was a German presentation, don’t worry – the film goes so far out of the way to remind us at every opportunity; most characters don’t go more than two minutes without saying the word “Berlin”. The film does have a few bright spots. Charlize Theron, our kick-ass heroine, absolutely devours every minute she is on screen. Her character delivers just enough deadpan humor to help carry us though the limp story. James McAvoy is also pretty good, doing his best Tyler Durden impersonation with a German twist.

Atomic Blonde aims to be a star-studded rock show, and in many aspects (especially on a visual level) it succeeds. But, without any substance behind what’s on screen you can’t help but think the director turned to an old trick stage producers will use when the band starts to suck: when in doubt – just turn up the volume and add some strobe lights.

Bottom Line: In a textbook example of style over substance, Atomic Blonde delivers a violent 120-minute music video at the expense of character, tension, or a sensible narrative.

Rating: 5.2/10

Film recipe: John Wick + Wanted + Salt 

It Comes At Night (2017)

9 Jun

Hot off the heels from his directorial debut Krisha, Trey Edward Shults again uses the camera as his psychological tool to pry open and dismantle the collective psyche of a family in chaos, this time with a horror-centric approach.

It Comes At Night is a psychological thriller set somewhere in a remote post-apocalyptic North America. A fatal disease has spread so fast that the core pillars of society have collapsed, triggering Paul (Joel Edgerton) to place his family on lockdown in a secluded cabin some 50 miles or so away from the nearest city center. It’s here they learn to be self-reliant, living day by day completely off the grid and away from any other survivors. Soon, Paul crosses paths with Will (Chris Abbott), another survivor who might be willing to trade some of his food in exchange for a truck-ride back to his family.  Paranoia abounds.

If it wasn’t already clear from the title, it becomes obvious from the first few minutes of the opening scene that things are going to get dark (both figuratively and literally).  Shults has a real talent for avoiding first act exposition and slowly revealing details about this world bit by bit.  Instead, the director focuses his energy creating tension out of the smallest moments with help from the cinematographer Drew Daniels;  a lingering slow zoom through an empty hallway becomes absolutely horrifying in the hands of these two. The entirety of the film takes place either inside Paul’s cabin or the woods directly adjacent to it, creating a claustrophobic quality that increases in tension along with the rising emotional status of our characters. It Comes At Night isn’t a film that is concerned with what anyone does or says so much as it is with what is going on in the mental spaces between the characters.  This type of film would not work if it wasn’t for the acting strength of everyone involved, and fortunately the supporting cast of Riley Keough, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. create a palatable unease within their performances.  It’s remarkable how much genuine suspense can be milked from It Comes At Night’s slim narrative; the spooks are few and far between, but the emotional payoffs this film brings to the table are the powerful kind that stick in your gut after the credits roll.

Bottom Line: Confident direction and a refusal for all things explained make It Comes At Night an essential and thrilling piece of psychologically provocative cinema. 

Rating: 7.5/10 

Film recipe:  Prisoners + Children of Men + The Road

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (2017)

23 Feb

It’s a cruel, cruel world. Taking place in what could only be Trump’s America, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore details the day-to-day life of Ruth (Melanie Lynskey), a jaded medical assistant who seems disgusted by the self-centeredness of a universe where “everyone I see is an asshole.” Ruth lives at home; her only friend is Angie, a busy housewife who has no time to listen when she nearly has an emotional breakdown after becoming a crime victim. It’s enough to push Ruth over the edge and investigate the perpetrators on her own terms, enlisting the help of her violent, short-tempered neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood) who just also happens to be a skilled martial artist.

Macon Blair, a skilled actor making his directorial debut, tightly commands every moment of this pitch-black comedic thriller. The jokes are few and far between, but they are delivered in such sly fashion they have a big impact (the bar scene is awkward enough to rival any episode from The Office). Blair, who comes fresh off of acting in Jeremy Saulnier’s acclaimed indie thrillers Green Room and Blue Ruin, is obviously a big genre fan himself, and his script here takes from a variety of influences (Martin McDonagh and the Coen brothers come to mind) while still feeling fresh and original. Lynskey gives her career-best performance as someone who is constantly weighed by the anxieties of the modern world but still someone who wants to make the altruistic change she wishes she could see in other people.

The story gets bumpy at around the halfway mark, but the few narrative issues are easily put aside when the film dives headfirst into its white-knuckle, absolutely batshit-insane third act. Here Blair’s talent shines like a beacon and he creates enormous amounts of tension in an incredibly tight timeframe. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a taut little thriller that leaves a bigger impression than it should.

Elijah Wood and Melanie Lynskey appear in I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore by Macon Blair, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Allyson Riggs.

Bottom Line: A genre-infused piece that shows Macon Blair’s inherent directorial sensibilities,  I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a deliciously clever and innovative take on the vigilante revenge story. It’s also incredibly suspenseful and drop-dead hilarious. 

Rating: 7.7/10 

Film Recipe: Fargo + In Bruges + Straw Dogs + Gran Torino