Brief Consideration: Mandy (2018)

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If you were to have a casual glance at any of the posters for Mandy, you would not be wrong in presuming that the film may well be a hellish and intense experience. In reality, the picture is surprisingly serene, dreamlike and elemental in its depiction of vengeance. The title character refers to Red Miller’s (Nicolas Cage) artistic and eternally innocent girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), who is kidnapped and burned to death by cult leader- Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache).

Mandy works less as an exercise in pulse-pounding genre thrills than a slow descent into a warped world. At nearly every turn, the film presents a situation in which there’s potential for a joyous revelling of its violence. However, this is usually undercut by its laboured style that matter of factly presents the violence as opposed to lingering on its effects.

At the same time, the film also functions as a deconstruction of Nicolas Cage’s screen persona. Various moments present Cage’s different approaches to acting and these harmonise to illustrate his appeal. Whether it’s his early scenes that feel like outtakes from his more sombre moments in Wild at Heart or his later scenes where Cage’s over the top zaniness is a measured response to his blood-soaked surroundings. The unifying factor that makes Cage’s performance fascinating is that his choices are filtered through a palpable portrait of loss and pain.

The ascetic: comprised of psychedelic, metal and occasional anime elements paint a feverishly surreal world that is both striking and horrifying. These facets are punctuated by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s mesmerising score that feels like Vangelis’s 80s work is being filtered through David Lynch’s atonal soundscape. The commendably foreboding and experimental score is a testament to the late Jóhannsson’s ability to craft beautiful musical compositions- even within the confines of a bleak and souring framework.

Mandy is a film that presents the manly revenge thriller at its most artistic and visionary. It seems less concerned with enticing the audience with its comeuppance then startling with its heightened reality.

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Review: Halloween (2018)

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John Carpenter’s Halloween was a minimalist masterpiece with an effortlessly versatile central antagonist. He was as much an unconscious manifestation of male aggression to the central heroine, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), as he was the proverbial bogeyman- walking among the unsuspecting denizens of (every town) Haddonfield. Commonly credited as Michael Myers (or The Shape to the attentive viewer), the slasher villain would go on to appear in over a dozen instalments; including a remake, several reboots, and even a reality television plot starring Busta Rhymes.

The 2018 entry is a clear-cut separation from the franchise’s past, instead choosing to pick up forty years after Carpenter’s 1978 film. Strode is now an overbearing and ultra paranoid elderly woman who lies in wait for Myers’s return. The babysitter killer has been incarcerated for a considerable amount of time and is due to be transferred to a maximum security prison, along with a large assortment of inmates. Unsurprisingly, the bus of inmates is let loose and Myers returns to the humble town he once wreaked havoc upon. Laurie’s relatives: including estranged daughter- Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter- Allyson (Andi Matichak); as well as a new generation of teens are the unsuspecting victims that stand between Laurie and Michael’s final confrontation.

The 2018 iteration occupies a strange middle ground between the sense of mystery that permeated Carpenter’s film, and the streak of sadism that defined many of its imitators. The result is an often safe feeling film that attempts to harmonise subgenre thrills and homage. In some cases, this results in some inspired scenes. Through an extensive lack of cuts and a literal fog-engulfed atmosphere: one extended sequence depicting a young boy and his father stumbling upon the bus of inmates is as effective as Myers’s escape scene from the original picture.

However, for every chilling depiction of Myers, there exists a pointless sequence of gruesome carnage that feels like it belongs in a cheap knock-off picture. These sequences are particularly egregious when they are serving the film’s clumsy attempt at keeping the mystery of the Shape alive.

In the wake of Dr Samuel Loomis’s death (Myers’s longstanding psychiatrist in the first film), Dr Ranbir Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) takes over. While Loomis was obsessed with the idea that his patient was the epitome of evil, Sartain is fixated with finding out the impulses that drive Myers’s desire for killing. Before his death, Sartain is trying to get Michael to speak and asks him to say something. This is met with a boot to the head and a squashed bloody head.

The character made me feel as though I was watching a performance from a latter-day Boris Karloff- slumming it as a sleazy, mad capped eighties parody of a psychiatrist. His death is the film’s way of wearing the sadistic clothes of its subgenre brethren in an attempt to desperately keep the motiveless Myers alive. As much as the original picture had an undeniable belief in the supernatural figure that could exist in the corner of your eye, Halloween (2018) emphatically bludgeons anyone who asks for meaning.  

In other instances, this tendency plays like a post-modern response to the original film’s tamer (by modern standards) death count.  At one point, a teen character says “A couple of people getting killed by one guy with a knife is not that big of a deal.”

Elsewhere, the film has the promise of a fulfilling dramatic story involving the effect that the traumatic Myers’s Halloween incident has had on Laurie’s life. However, the screenplay never reconciles the disparate (fragile, paranoid and eventual resilient) qualities of the character. It’s a credit to Curtis’s touching and tough performance that some semblance of humanity is wrung out of what feels like an interesting series of sketches for an aged Laurie Strode.

In spite of all this, the film has some clear merits. There is some fun to be had from the playful cinematic callbacks to the original film that usually frames Laurie in the places that Michael was. The score: Composed by Carpenter in collaboration with Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies wonderfully adds an element of time to the established themes. The music also excellently blurs the line between sound design and symphonic score. And there are a few instances in which some of the secondary characters are written with a rare authenticity that remind you of director David Gordon Green’s independent roots.

Ultimately, the 2018 film has the most in common with Halloween II (1981), insofar as its virtues exist in the small and quiet moments that are deeply embedded within the main narrative. Crucially, they both indulge in the worse instincts of the slasher genre. Whereas Rick Rosenthal’s picture was a clear embracing of the trend for commercialism, Halloween’s (2018) swim in the subgenre pool is an unnecessary anachronism.
















 

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Review: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (BFI London Film Festival)

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By all that is sane and fair, Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited adaptation of Cervantes’s monumental comic novel- Don Quixote, is finally here. While the film’s sheer existence is a cause for celebration, keeping the long and arduous journey to the screen in mind. (The painfully candid 2002 documentary- Lost in La Mancha covers the unmaking of the first attempt). The end result is something of a tangled and fascinating undertaking.

Taking place in modern day, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is about advertising director, Toby Grisoni (Adam Driver), who is in the state of creative frustration whilst producing a commercial involving two of the novel’s characters. He comes across a copy of a student film he made about the famous adventurer. From there, the picture charts his rediscovery of the actors he cast and the effect that his film had on their lives.

To its credit, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is made with all the gusto of the Knight of the Rueful Countenance. The film is at its best when Gilliam is directly adapting some of the novel’s most famous sequences. In particular, the costume party section takes one of the key adventures and turns it into an amusing and emotional series of events. At the same time, it also evokes some of the sublime ironies found in the book’s second part.

The tail end section also features some of Gilliam’s most interesting camera work. Aesthetically, he makes the momentous occasion seem like a strange surreal experience with dizzying dutch angles and a piece of documentary footage, with the way in which the lavish festivities are captured. In many other pictures, this mixture of camera moves would be inane and pretentious. But here, it serves to underscore Gilliam’s persistent fascination with the blurred line between fantasy and reality.

Within this larger section are production design elements that feel like Gilliam is echoing the homemade and tactile quality of his earlier pictures. One particularly striking example is a recurring image of a large stack of old chairs that reaches the ceiling. When looking at its use, it feels as though I was looking at an elaborate stage prop that reminded me of Gilliam’s theatrical tendencies.

The director is also able to evoke the novel’s universal elements. Grisoni casts a humble Spanish shoemaker called Javier (Jonathan Pryce) to play the title character. Throughout the making, we see the non-actor desperately attempting to inhabit the character. When the director returns years later, Javier has in a sense become Don Quixote de La Mancha. As much as Cervantes’s Quixote represented an escape from the malaise of middle age, Javier’s inhabiting of the title character is a response to his humble and quiet existence.

In the lead role, Pryce is commendable in his spiritedness. He imbues the novel’s famous lines with conviction and a sly comic wit. However, he casts the biggest impression as Javier, illustrating a sense of humbleness and reserved determinism that makes his later transformation powerfully poignant (as a man who has finally grasped the part).

Despite these elements, the film is problematic. Crucially, the aspects that don’t directly deal with the novel feel deficient and superfluous. Most of the characters end up feeling like broadly drawn caricatures as opposed to human beings. One particularly blatant example is a Russian character who feels like a pantomime stand-in for Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Harvey Weinstein respectively.

Thematically, the film is about the longstanding harm that cinema can cause people. Other than being a clever set up for one plot point, the theme is never particularly mined well. Additionally, in the context of one of the characters, the theme ends up feeling sketchily developed, nebulous and simplistic.

The film is also bursting at the seams with some painfully excessive comic sequences. A repeated gag involving a misunderstanding of the supposed dalliances that Grisoni has with two of the female characters seeks to make the film feel like a lost Carry On picture. These scenes also make the structure feel lumbering, awkward and incoherent.

One could read many of Gilliam’s choices as a means of directly adapting Cervantes’s text. Structurally, the novel is a series of adventurous vignettes that varied in their shades of comedy, tragedy and melodrama. With this structure, Cervantes was pointedly mocking and celebrating the melodramatic literature that shaped Quixote’s chivalrous mindset. Gilliam’s structure never feels satirical as much as a comedic stockpiling that is meant to get us from one adapted adventure to the next.

Funny, maddening and occasionally meandering, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in some ways matches the spirit of Cervantes’s novel. The material is a perfect match for Gilliam insofar as he matches the author’s knack for earnest absurdity. However, I came away wishing that Gilliam’s viewpoint was less muddy, and that I did not have to trudge through so many unnecessary elements to get to his stylistic adaptation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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200th Post Special: My Top Ten Favourite Films

10) Rashomon (1950)

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Akira Kurosawa’s mesmerising tale about the subjective accounts of a murdered Samurai introduced the world to Japanese Cinema. Its imprint can still be traced in films as diverse as The Last Jedi and Isle of Dogs. As a budding lover of film, it vividly demonstrated to me the power of weather and nature in cinematic storytelling.

9) Wild Strawberries (1957)

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Admittedly, Wild Strawberries is a warmer and less bleak affair from Ingmar Bergman. But it’s quandaries about ageing, legacy and fatherhood are still palpable. Additionally, its lush and trance-inducing use of black and white are as impressive as any of the Expressionist films of the early days of the medium. 

8) Before Sunset (2004)

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The Before Trilogy is an impressive and charming exercise in making conversations seem authentic and urgent. Collectively, the films depict the eroding nature of time and its effect on love and one’s worldview. Before Sunset is touching in its depiction of rekindling romance and intriguing in its question of whether it can be sustained after so many years.

7) Blade Runner (1982)

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Even in light of a spectacular sequel, Blade Runner has lost none of its originality or power. Ridley Scott’s vision of a rain-drenched, globalised and impoverished 2019 Los Angeles still remains one of cinema’s great creations. And the film’s philosophical questions about the essence of the soul and memory remain haunting.  

6) Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

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How to do you remake one of the most influential German films of the silent era? Hiring Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski to illustrate the humanity of the vampire’s immortal existence in all its sad and amusing colours is not a bad way to go.

5) Young Frankenstein (1974)

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Young Frankenstein is an excellent showcasing of how to make a spoof movie. The shadowy black and white photography, bombastic score and elaborate production design lovingly embrace the Universal Monster Movies. And Gene Wilder’s performance as a scientist who persistently fails to keep a measure of calm and restraint is the hilarious cherry on top.

4) Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

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Brian De Palma’s gonzo and trashy reinterpretation of the Phantom of the Opera represents the pinnacle of cult moviemaking. Even within the confines of its excess is a genuine sense of an auteur in the making. The eclectic array of music by Paul Williams does not hurt either.

3) The Dark Knight (2008)

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Christopher Nolans engrossing and gut-wrenching crime drama is a potent reminder of the heights that the comic book movie can reach. Using The Long Halloween and The Killing Joke as a foundation, the Nolan brothers construct a narrative that explores the ethical lines that three characters are challenged with when facing the societal embodiment of pure anarchy.

2) Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

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George Lucas’s seminal space fable is perhaps the most earnest movie ever made. Combining elements from World Cinema, Saturday Matinee Serials and spirituality, Star Wars is a paradigm of cinematic world building and retro romanticism that never ceases to inspire me.

1) Rushmore (1999)

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Rushmore is a sincere coming of age drama that illustrates how art can transform from being an expression of egotism to a valuable tool in uniting people. Wes Anderson’s reinvention of Bill Murray as a figure of malaise is sublime and watching the director’s carefully constructed ascetic in a looser form is a treat. The film also happens to be sweet, funny and quaint.

 

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Brief Consideration: The Mad Max Series (1979-1985)

Mad Max (1979)

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Mad Max is a flawed and occasionally impressive first directorial effort from George Miller. His ability to construct set pieces is the real highlight of the film. For example, the opening action scene combines subtle humour, a Western-style standoff between two cars and a Film Noir set up for the central character Max. The camera only reveals parts of him until we see a close up of his face at the pivotal moment during the chase. The sequence is also impeccably edited and constructed, feeling like a homage to silent cinema. Additionally, the film has intense horror sequences that are indicative of the period. The movie at times feels like it is directly channelling pictures like the Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

As for Mel Gibson’s first on-screen performance, he has a magnetic and indelible screen presence. Additionally, in the final act of the film, he plays driven and unhinged convincingly. The latter, in particular, would be a signature strength of his appeal as an actor. However, he is less believable during the dramatic scenes with his wife, looking uncomfortable and out of his element. This mainly hurts one speech he has to deliver during the middle of the film, which feels like the director’s admiration for the John Wayne type of a man and hero.

The central flaw of the film comes from one of the conceits of the screenplay. During a conversation with his boss, Max says that he fears that he is becoming like the criminals he is chasing, which comes from the sheer enjoyment of his job. However, we never see this occur elsewhere in the story at all. The closest that we reach is when Max first sees his custom black car. It is a gaping hole in the film that makes the central theme and story lack potency. Additionally, there is lip service paid to Max’s boss being an idealistic man and believing in heroes, but this is never developed.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

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Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is the best sequel in genre cinema and a masterclass in apocalyptic world building and madcap vision. Though your level of tolerance will vary, based on the ascetic that director George Miller has for his view of the future.

There is a lot to admire in the film. Whether it is the charming moments between characters that can last mere seconds. Or the virtuoso filmmaking that is best encapsulated in the finale. It synthesises the concept of a Western on wheels with Carmageddon thrills.

However, the best element of the picture is that Miller has mostly taken a simple story of revenge and has now elevated it into the realm of the mythical and western. This results in an entirely different beast from its predecessor. The Road Warrior, snarls, clonks and roars throughout its ninety-minute runtime, and what a glorious sound and result it makes. A true classic.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

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Despite some quite apparent jarring tonal shifts throughout its running time, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome adds enough to its central character and universe. Max’s main journey turns him from a silent mythological figure into a fabled defender of the younger generation. Barter Town provides George Millar’s post-apocalyptic vision with a sense of place, history and archaic societal structure. The lost boys esque group of young children that Max encounters is the closest that the original films will come to exploring religion. And the last twenty minutes of the film delivers some great and exciting car chases in the vein of its predecessors.

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Brief Consideration: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

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Sergio Leone’s 1966 film opens with an elaborate title sequence. The audience is treated to various images that range from looking like chalk-drawn wanted posters, Warhol pop art concoctions and patient stencilled undertakings. The eclectic array of styles encapsulates the film’s enduring appeal. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly may lack the existential grapplings of its future genre brethren. However, it fundamentally puts the Western on its largest canvas and illustrates its potential to sweep, move and enthral.

Leone’s West is contradictory: heightened, mythical, zany and sometimes wryly amusing, the full spectrum of emotions on display flicker like the dusty desert air. Even Ennio Morricone’s grandiose score is wielded to such effect. In Angel Eye’s (Lee Van Cleef) introductory scene, Morricone’s simple use of acoustic guitar gives the impression we are watching a heroic Western gunslinger ride into town with noble and benevolent intentions. However, this is subverted by Angel Eye’s amoral behaviour throughout the film.

The picture is filled to the brim with these push and pulls elements. For every quick death, there is an equally protracted and gut-wrenching variant. On previous viewings, the film impressed me in how it juxtaposed the Amorality of the central characters with the ongoing wave of the American Civil War. In this way, the film could almost be read as a melding of archetypes and history. The result is these larger than life figures becoming more human.

Crucially, Leone embodies this quality in the film-making. Some of the long shots are an epic canvas for the mythic characters to have blisteringly tense showdowns, but his use of close-ups reminds us that they are all too human.

On this viewing, I was struck by an added element that enriched my reading. In one scene, Tucco (Eli Wallach) confronts his brother by stating that his way of escaping poverty was harder as opposed to his brother, who chose to hide in an occupation by becoming a Priest. With this scene and later events in mind, the film is illustrating a nobility in the gunslinger’s life. Rather than die of starvation or at the whims of a drunken army captain, the gunslinger takes his life into his own hands and is wholly responsible for it.

Like many aspects of the film, the central trio of characters is different things at various times. One of Leone’s most significant contributions to the Western was the shading of the gunslinger archetype.

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Brief Consideration: The Predator (2018)

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Depending on the viewer, The Predator will either be a howling laugh riot with the occasional instance of shocking, bloody violence. Or it will play like a tedious, tone deaf and persistently erratic revival of the B-movie franchise. Count me in the second camp. Trying to explain the plot would be akin to weaving a narrative out of the various body parts of Frankenstein’s monster.

But here goes nothing. In essence: A biologist, small boy and group of ragtag soldiers all team up against an improved Predator, who upgrades itself with DNA from other species.

The Predator is a film that dies the slow death of a thousand cuts. Some of these include grossly overlong comic interludes, poor aping of Spielbergian sentimentality and bewildering plot points. The film feels like it has a profound identity crisis and from scene to scene revels in it.

Conceptually, the film is pitching itself as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There is even a scene where two characters are framed like the long-limbed aliens (via a blurring effect in a long shot), from the 1977 picture. However, it lacks the awe and sheer tragic nature of that film.

Crucially, director Shane Black doesn’t harmonise the film’s various disparate elements together. In his other films, Black has been deft at balancing wonder, postmodern joshing and vicious violence. Even Black’s usual postmodern riffing feels desperate rather than sharp. A gag about the definition of the franchise’s name is bandied about at least three times.

The problem partially comes from the material itself. Predator has always been a one-note franchise. It has been about humankind embracing its primal nature to fend off creatures that consider our race to be prey in the galaxy-wide pecking order. The 2010 entry, Predators, peaked in an ever engaging genre picture that paralleled earthly predators against their alien counterparts.

Perhaps, wonderment in the vein of Close Encounters could not be achieved with a monster, we have collectively seen too much off. As it stands, there is a slice of three movies in The Predator. It’s a shame nobody knows which one to go for.

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