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Sunday, 28 October 2018

Halloween




"I have prayed every day for 40 years that he would escape, so that I can kill him."


David Gordon Green has potentially one of the most varied and bizarre filmographies of any esteemed filmmaker working today. Having founded his career with intimate dramas such as ‘George Washington’ and ‘All the Real Girls’, he then underwent a shift as he directed a series of stoner comedies. These the included the well received ‘Pinaeapple Express’ and the critically maligned ‘Your Highness’. Then he switched once more to sombre and emotionally powerful dramas in the form of ‘Joe’ and ‘Stronger’. Now he has been given the reigns of arguably the most iconic horror franchise of all time.


40 years after he first wreaked havoc on an unsuspecting suburban neighbourhood, Michael Myers returns to seek revenge against the one who escaped his wrath, Laurie Strode (Jaimie Lee Curtis). However Laurie herself has also changed in these 40 years, having become a paranoid loner who has long been preparing for the nightmare to return, so she can exact her own revenge.


Despite the baggage of a dozen sequels/iterations, each with diminishing returns, to John Carpenter’s 1978 horror masterwork I was surprisingly excited to see David Gordon Green bring Michael Myers back onto the big screen. Divorcing itself from a majority of the franchise provided the filmmakers with a clean slate to execute their own artistic vision for the property and how best to finally deliver a worthy sequel more than 40 years after the original. By all purposes it should be exceptional, which is why it’s so crushing for me to concede that is somewhat unremarkable.


Perhaps the most value that can come from David Gordon Green’s ‘Halloween’ is that it gives you an appreciation for the nuance and patience of the 1978 classic. The stripped down plot mechanics which allowed Carpenter to home and perfect his craft of fear inducing suspense and an unparalleled sense of atmosphere are just some of the things that feel sorely absent from this attempt to continue the story. Despite several intriguing concepts 2018’s ‘Halloween’ comes across as a film throwing everything it has at the wall to see what sticks, rushing through one contrived narrative thread after another which all seem shockingly disconnected.


It becomes apparent in the final frame of the film that there’s really no greater thematic meaning to take away from Gordon Green’s ‘Halloween’. There are shreds of thematic undercurrents but none of them really carry over from one act into the other. What starts out as a commentary on the sensationalism of real crime and a study of generational trauma quickly descends into a by the numbers slasher which does not seek to resolve any of the ideas contemplated in act one. Furthermore because the script is so disjointed it doesn’t even allow the film to work as a stripped down work of pure horror.


Even when ‘Halloween’ does show signs of craft and intrigue it’s interrupted by the scripts own obligations to service the various meandering subplots it introduces. So while the conceptual points Gordon Green brings to the table are interesting in their own right, they seem to be constantly at odds with one another in the broader strokes of the story. As I said before some unified sense of craft or atmosphere might have helped to bring these ideas together but ‘Halloween’ is also severely lacking in that area.


That being said, more so than the muddled script is the absence of tonal consistency. Once again I find myself appreciating the tightly constructed atmosphere of Carpenter’s original even more as the 2018 iteration seems confused in almost every aspect of its tone. Just from a craft standpoint the movie is torn between embracing the nuanced lens of the 1978 version but also exercising an overtly gory and excessive tone to the murders themselves. It will introduce the future victims under a sympathetic guise but will revel in their violent deaths and frames Michael as a victim in his own right but also uphold the notion that he’s an omnipotent killing machine beyond empathy of any kind.


Like many sequels of its nature, 2018’s ‘Halloween’ contains numerous homages to its predecessors and in doing so I think exemplifies the mistakes of the film as a whole. Whereas other continuations of a franchise like ‘Creed’ or ‘The Force Awakens’ play their homages with a sense of thematic catharsis as well as aesthetic appeal, ‘Halloween’ tries to subvert the ways it imitates the 1978 film and often tries to play these homages for laughs. That in itself is not an issue but in the context of a film that wants to create a sustained atmosphere or continuous tension.


All of these problems to a disservice to the many strong elements of ‘Halloween’. Jaimie Lee Curtis in particular gives a highly compelling performance as a Laurie who has been both defined and haunted by the events of 1978 to this day. The set pieces are appropriately suspenseful in their own context and with John Carpenter returning to compose the film’s score it goes without saying that the music of 2018’s ‘Halloween’ is truly exceptional. But none of these elements save what is an otherwise confused and misguided entry in the franchise.


Muddled on a narrative, thematic and tonal level, David Gordon Green’s reach seems to escape himself as ‘Halloween’ becomes a disappointing misfire.


Result: 4/10

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Hold the Dark



"There are bodies scattered on the hillside."


In just a few small steps Jeremy Saulnier has cemented himself as one of the most promising filmmakers currently at prominence. His two masterful thrillers ‘Blue Ruin’ and ‘Green Room’ each displayed such a ferocious command of craft that they could only have come from a director with an intuitive talent for suspense and tension. They were each tightly wound and electrifying pieces of cinema, however his latest film ‘Hold the Dark’ is instantly notable as being distinctly more ambitious.


Retired naturalist Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) journeys to the edge of civilization in northern Alaska at the pleading of Medora Slone (RILEY KEOUGH), a young mother whose son was killed by a pack of wolves. As Core attempts to help Medora track down the wolves who took her son, a strange and dangerous relationship develops between the two lonely souls.


There is always a danger to a filmmaker who wants to make a jump in the ambition and scale of their stories. Obviously I am not for a second suggesting that a talented director should be discouraged from broadening their scope (some of the best films in history have come from precisely that), but it is worth noting the risks involved. As disappointing as it is given the strength of Saulnier’s previous efforts, ‘Hold the Dark’ is emblematic of those problems and suffers from having too far a reach with not enough substance to justify it.


On its most basic and fundamental level ‘Hold the Dark’ is clearly an increase in size from the likes of ‘Green Room’ and ‘Blue Ruin’. Where the two prior films both fell within a similar 90-95 minute runtime, ‘Hold the Dark’ ploughs on to 125 minutes, a length that it fails to fill satisfyingly. The plot meanders to a point where key narrative arcs feel confused and muddled, whilst the overall structure of the film seems awkwardly paced. ‘Hold the Dark’ is a movie that feels much longer than its runtime while simultaneously being strangely empty and devoid of substance.


Perhaps that feeling arises from how little of the narrative within ‘Hold the Dark’ unfolds in unison. Rather than deliver a series of plot threads and narrative arcs that flow into one another and unfold at a simultaneous pace, the script is constantly at odds with itself in regards to where to devote its attention. When it has to advance one theme or story beat, everything else is halted to accommodate it, which creates this sense of stalling that drags on the film not only in terms of pacing but also simple cohesion. When you boil the core elements of ‘Hold the Dark’ down it becomes apparent how needlessly convoluted the film is as a viewing experience. Too much muddled storytelling means Saulnier’s latest film is about as far away from a tightly wound thriller as one can get. It’s difficult to be absorbed in the momentary suspense when part of you is still wrapping your head around the broader story beats which refuse to add up.


However Saulnier is too talented to produce an outright disaster, which ‘Hold the Dark’ is most certainly not. Though its own ambition may be its downfall, it is hard not to admire the scale from which Saulnier aims to deliver a story which is somewhat compelling when the narrative beats fall into synch. Though its philosophical undertones also lack enough development to feel impactful, few filmmakers are better at eliciting an instinctive gut reaction from a viewer as Saulnier. The brutality on display here is deeply felt, as are the emotionally draining performances from a hugely talented cast.


Having worked as a director of photography years before helming his own films, Saulnier still possesses a keen eye for evocative visuals and dramatic angles as well. The cold and hostile Alaskan environment is a truly chilling setting for a thriller of this nature and helps to create a highly atmospheric work. It’s easy to think of the environment as a fully formed character in of itself. In fact when you think of ‘Hold the Dark’ as strictly a mood piece the film almost works.


However that reading soon falls apart when the film’s story beats demand the characters be seen as complex presences, which the script never quite establishes adequately. Once again the flaws of the movie rests on its failure to justify its own scope and scale. If this were a shortened thriller the lack of character depth could be forgiven, but in a two hour tour of bleakness a continuous mood and pretty visuals are not enough to sustain a compelling narrative for that amount of time. Saulnier can convey dread and despair with brilliant impact, but for a feature of this ambition on this occasion he lacks the emotional depth and nuance to reach a more meaningful conclusion.


Despite some strong elements, ‘Hold the Dark’ is too cold and distant to work as a compelling thriller in its own right.


Result: 5/10

Monday, 15 October 2018

First Man



"Down here you look up and don't think about it too much, but space exploration changes your perception."


Given the subject matter of his previous two masterworks, ‘Whiplash’ and ‘La La Land’, it is surprising to a certain degree that Damien Chazelle would tackle the subject of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing as his next feature. Going from intimately staged, musically driven dramas to a story that is quite literally beyond the scope of earth is a significant transition. However it was inevitable that Chazelle would turn his sights to new forms of storytelling and new subjects from which to craft said stories. That being said a spontaneous jazz drum solo on the moon wouldn’t surprise me.


Following the death of his young daughter, test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) applies for NASA’s astronaut programme and is accepted as part of the group. What follows is a mission to venture further beyond earth than any human being had before, a goal of sending a man to the moon that is littered with danger and the potential for disaster every step of the way.


Despite what I said earlier, to say that there is a big shift in the type of film ‘First Man’ is compared to something like ‘Whiplash’ is a simplification. Certainly the scale and subject is wildly different, but at the heart of each film is a deeply human and endlessly empathetic conflict of emotions that serves as substance for the broader story. On the surface ‘First Man’ is a biopic about the first person to walk on the moon. However at its core, it is a story of grief and the mechanisms one specific man uses to cope with it.


‘First Man’ paints a portrait of Neil Armstrong that is not sleek heroism but rather awkward and difficult. It renders Armstrong as a man fresh from the loss of his daughter and pushing himself into new ventures as a means to distract himself from the crushing grief, which is what eventually leads him to the moon. It’s also keen to point out Armstrong’s tendency to suppress his emotions, keeping calm and collected in the face of danger whilst only letting his inner self spill out during moments of privacy. In that sense the film is also about a man who fought to keep his emotions in check whilst at the forefront of the greatest spectacle any human could ever witness. Something that the script is keen to make note of.


Ryan Gosling brings a lot of this to the forefront of his performance. As an actor Gosling seems to specialise in portraying people who are stoic and emotionless, which in turn speaks volumes about their inner state without uttering a word. It’s a difficult performance to display with nuance but that is exactly what Gosling does. Claire Foy is a fantastic counterpoint to that as Armstrong’s wife Janet. Their conflict of emotional output comes to ahead in a fantastic scene in which Neil and Janet each confront to real possibility that they may be seeing each other for the last time.


‘First Man’ certainly possesses a more conventional narrative structure as biopics go, playing out chronologically and covering a specific span of time as it does so. But that ultimately leans in the movie’s favour as it makes the eventual accomplishment feel all the more fulfilling. The film is paced in such a way that lets us see every setback and every loss, questioning whether the feat of reaching the moon could even be worth the cost. The longer the film thrusts forward the more you appreciate the monumental task of its subject.


Nothing within ‘First Man’ is drawn simplistically. From the characterisation of its protagonist to how it portrays the space programme itself. Chazelle’s direction consistently emphasises the sheer visceral impact of what NASA and its astronauts were attempting. The spaceships rattle and shake violently as they fly, components have a fragile dexterity to them, and anything can go wrong at any time. There have been many movies about space travel, but none have conveyed the instinctive terror and utter danger of the enterprise quite as effectively as Chazelle does here.


It’s a testament to the precision of the filmmaking at hand that it can place the audience in such a state of tension that a viewer could briefly forget the concrete and universally known fact that NASA and Armstrong successfully landed on the moon. Even with that information in your head you will still be inclined to tense up when aspects of the mission go awry and events start spiralling out of control. Chazelle’s framing during the flight sequences evoke such a sense of claustrophobic chaos. Then there are aspects such as the sound design which conveys every worrying alarm, the cinematography that stresses every turn in motion, and the visual effects which blend seamlessly into the grounded human drama unfolding before our eyes.


For all its technical excellence though, there is real emotional substance to ‘First Man’ which makes this rendering of Armstrong’s journey so compelling. Part of that is down to Justin Hurwitz’s truly phenomenal musical score, which comes at emotional peaks in the film to elevate impeccable scenes even further (shocker, the guy who directed ‘Whiplash’ and ‘La La Land’ is good at using music in his film). Perhaps the best microcosm of this balance between momentary technical prowess and emotional storytelling is the pivotal moment of the entire film. The scene in which Armstrong and Aldrin land on the moon is masterfully thrilling in its execution. But then the moon walk that follows is one of the most quietly and transcendentally emotional scenes to emerge from cinema this year.


Thrilling and visceral in a way that no film about space has been before, as well as emotionally rich and compellingly drawn, ‘First Man’ is a triumph.


Result: 9/10



A Star is Born



"Almost every single person has told me that they liked the way I sounded but they didn't like the way I looked."


Credit where credit is due, there is a lot to be said about the staying power of a story which has been told in four separate iterations across several decades. Both the original from 1937 and the first official remake in 1954 are renowned classics, whereas the 1976 version is a melodramatic disaster. However it’s that iteration which this modern retelling seems to borrow the most from, which is actually a smart choice in the long run since improving upon a failed film is much easier than trying to live up to a widely acclaimed classic.


Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a famous country singer battling with drug and alcohol addiction is amazed by the talent of an unknown performer called Ally (Lady Gaga), whom he encourages to step into the spotlight. But as her career begins to flourish, Jackson finds himself embroiled in personal struggles that could lead him to completely self-destruct.


Despite the obvious timeless appeal that the story of ‘A Star is Born’ possesses, this specific version is one that has come to fruition after decades of being stuck in development hell. Since 40 years have passed since the last iteration there is a lot of open room from which this version could potentially take the story. It’s therefore somewhat disappointing that this 21st century retelling sticks very closely to the framework of its predecessors, barely deviating in terms of the broader structure and narrative of the story as well as the dynamics that have been cemented with each new account.  


I would not want to come across as if I’m criticising ‘A Star is Born’ for what it does not do rather than judge the film by way of what it is. However I just feel as if there is something to take note of in terms of how ‘A Star is Born’ fails to give both of its leads equal footing. As a character Ally has plenty of musical opportunities and a strong opening characterisation, but as the film progresses her development feels frustratingly static. The dramatic crux of her arc seems to be side lined until a somewhat awkward addition to the third act that closes the movie. That final pay off is effective but also creates a somewhat awkward pace to the final narrative strokes the film has to offer.


Perhaps this would not be as big of an issue for me were it not for the fact that the main thematic pulse of this (and every) version of ‘A Star is Born’ is that duality of their dynamic. It stresses not only the downward spiral of Jackson but also the ascending stardom of Ally, which feels a little short-changed when the two are not presented on equal footing for the movie’s entire runtime. By the halfway point in ‘A Star is Born’ the power dynamic between its two leads has shifted but while Jackson’s character continues to garner screen time and development, Ally stands relatively still.


That being said there are still many truly phenomenal aspects to ‘A Star is Born’, many of them being the performances of its incredibly talented cast. Bradley Cooper excellently communicates the tragic side of Jackson’s character, even at his most charismatic and endearing there is an underlying sadness to proceedings. Gaga herself is outstanding both for the musical aspects of the movie (obviously) but also the dramatic subtleties that come with bringing a role like this to life. Her quiet vulnerability is conveyed perfectly to a point where her more powerful character moments, from the singing to the triumphant moments of self-confidence, are incredibly cathartic and fulfilling. The only thing that outshines Cooper and Gaga’s individual performances is their wonderfully endearing chemistry.


Meanwhile the supporting cast are just as strong as the leads, adding a layer if depth to the story by way of making the secondary characters of the story superbly empathetic. The actions of the protagonists have an added weight to them when they are shown to have an impact on the surrounding people as well as themselves. Sam Elliot is as charmingly sincere as always, evoking such poignancy with remarkably nuance. But while Elliot’s brilliance is hardly surprising, the fact that comedians like Dave Chapelle and Andrew Dice Clay are as affecting as they are through their performances is remarkable.


In terms of those involved though, Cooper is under scrutiny for two roles as he fills the slot of actor and director. The first act of ‘A Star is Born’ in immense command of craft from Cooper, utilising the story’s simplistic but effective story beats to tell a highly fulfilling narrative. It’s tightly controlled, emotionally resonant and visually complex storytelling that showcases great promise for Cooper as a filmmaker. Unfortunately it also seems that as the script becomes somewhat convoluted and repetitive, so does the direction which is rarely as focussed or as innovative as it was during that incredible first act. Perhaps that in itself is a meta commentary for the film’s narrative, in that the story of these two characters is never as dazzling as it was after that first encounter. But regardless it still doesn’t make for the most rewarding watch.


Despite coming apart slightly through it’s second and third act, the strength of its first lunge as wel as the incredible performances make ‘A Star is Born’ a crowd pleasing experience.


Result: 6/10

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Leave No Trace



"The same thing that's wrong with you isn't wrong with me."


It is worth paying attention to the leads in Debra Granik’s films because twice now she has launched the prolific careers of two actors with each successive film that introduced them to the world. The first was in 2004 when ‘Down to the Bone’ gave way to a number of acclaimed roles for Vera Farmiga, then again in 2010 when ‘Winter’s Bone’ kick started Jenifer Lawrence’s superstar career. So her third feature ‘Leave No Trace’ is certainly nothing to overlook, both due to what it could yield for the actors involved as well as its masterful quality.


Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live a perfect but mysterious existence in Forest Park, a beautiful nature reserve near Portland, Oregon, rarely making contact with the world. But when a small mistake tips them off to authorities, they are sent on an increasingly erratic journey in search of a place to call their own.


Granik’s films have displayed strong themes of personal willpower, as well as an undercurrent of social critique. Those two elements are once again very pertinent in her latest feature, as on the one hand ‘Leave No Trace’ is a character study of two deeply connected people slowly coming to terms with the fact that they each have fundamentally different outlooks on life. Despite a laser focus on those two characters, it is hard not to grasp the underlying message Granik is also looking to convey as she provides a snapshot of people trying to piece their lives back together.


What makes those thematic messages feel so powerful is Granik’s complete trust in her audience and confidence in her own visual storytelling. The first act of ‘Leave No Trace’ contains minimal dialogue and yet Granik presents such an acute portrait of two people, how they live and how they relate to one another that it is quite simply astounding. Not only does the film open its story with no dialogue, it makes the absence of speech a fundamental part of its storytelling. We get an intuitive sense of just how deeply connected this father and daughter bond is, how their routines unfold and how they possess an intuitive understanding of each other. We are never told exactly how long the two have been living outside of civilisation, but their interaction makes us subconsciously aware that it has been long enough to a point where they are instinctively accustomed to this way of life.  


The fact that the characterisations are so strong from the start is a testament to the incredible performances of McKenzie and Foster. Just their very movement and interaction communicates volumes, which is likely why Granik so often uses her frames to emphasize those movements in all their detail. As the movie progresses, so do their performances as they add new layers of depth to their characters. Foster portrays a man who either refuses, or simply is incapable, of fitting into a larger world. His deep seated scars and trauma are clear but never overwhelming in his performance as Foster takes the time to craft a fully realised character before revealing those layers as the film progresses.


Simultaneously it’s McKenzie who has to adjust the most in her performance through the film. Going from the na├»ve bewilderment of suddenly being plunged into a new world once she and her father are uprooted, her character must go through the disenchantment of realising that her father is damaged in ways she cannot understand. McKenzie handles and conveys each step of this development with such brilliant precision and naturalism that it can be difficult to remember you are merely watching a performance. Her emotive responses feel so perfectly restrained so as to not clash with the reserved young woman who is introduced, but not vague enough so as to not give the audience a clear picture of what she is going through.


In fact the film as a whole strikes a similar balance of tone. Though it would be easy to tell this story in absolutes due to the bleakness of its premise, Granik finds optimism and moments of beauty in this tale of disenfranchisement. She makes this story solely about the people at its core and how their emotional state changes and evolves through their experiences. Everyone is portrayed with nuance, with no attempt to vilify or vindicate anyone in particular. Even the authorities who disrupt the father and daughter’s isolated lives are doing so with the best of intentions, and though the world of society is colder and clinical compared to the wilderness, there are plenty of people willing to help the two outcasts navigate their way through it.


There are too many moments of unspoken subtleties within ‘Leave No Trace’ to count. Moments that are never explicitly told to us but communicate a vastness of depth regarding the characters and world. We don’t need to be told why the sound of a helicopter passing overhead causes a moment of distress for Will, or why Tom continues to follow him despite her better judgement. They are simply too obvious to be worth saying.


Beautifully nuanced in its execution yet powerful in its emotional prowess, ‘Leave No Trace’ is a masterful story of two people that reflects a much wider social critique.


Result: 9/10

Monday, 8 October 2018

Venom



"Cooperate, and you just might survive."


An aspect of an environment that is as saturated as the current superhero genre within cinema right now is that it can lead to more unconventional projects being greenlit. Sony and producer Avi Arad have been so eager to bring the character of Venom to the big screen that they interfered with Sam Raimi’s plans for ‘Spider-Man 3’ to shoehorn the character into a movie in which he did not belong. Ten years later though they are confident enough in the label to present it to audiences. However, that is both a blessing and a curse.  


Journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is trying to take down Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the notorious founder of the Life Foundation that has recently required a mysterious substance from a probe returning to earth. While investigating one of Drake's experiments, Eddie's body merges with the alien Venom leaving him with superhuman strength and power. Twisted, dark and fuelled by rage, Venom tries to control the new and dangerous abilities that Eddie finds so intoxicating.


It’s easy to look at a movie like ‘Venom’ and be fundamentally confused over what precisely the filmmakers wanted to achieve. I understand that the answer may be obvious in the broader sense as Sony want to establish a strong foundation for their own superhero cinematic universe assembled of the Marvel characters they retain the rights to use. But I mean for the tone, style and thematic undercurrent of this singular vision that is ‘Venom’, what was the intended goal? Because I’m genuinely confused as to what it actually was.


To say that ‘Venom’ features some tonal and cognitive dissonance would be an understatement. The film’s entire aesthetic seems committed to a grittier and grounded story but the narrative repeatedly dives into some incredibly outlandish and frankly bizarre sequences. Perhaps that is exemplified best by how ‘Venom’ tries to characterise its protagonist. It introduces Eddie Brock as a morally nuanced figure but then never utilises that trait and instead delves into overblown action scenes and Tom Hardy’s awkward pontificating as the film moves forward.


It’s not that either of those approaches are flawed but when mashed together it feels as if ‘Venom’ has just as big a personality split as the symbiotic relationship between Brock and Venom. That being said at least the central character has the performance of Tom Hardy to provide connective tissue, which Hardy does with all his scenery chewing glory. Hardy’s expressionistic and volatile form throughout the film is what works to keep the viewer engaged. For all of the flaws in ‘Venom’ it is at least interesting for the most part and Hardy may be the main reason as to why. His sporadic interaction with the titular Venom is also fascinating and makes for an intriguing dynamic.


However it is also a dynamic that feels like it has been cut painfully short, particularly towards the end of where the second act used to be but is now just the bridge between an extended first act and a rushed climax. Rather than develop or explore the central personality conflict that drives the narrative of ‘Venom’, the film has one half of that duo undergo a personality shift with little to no explanation. Just as the dynamic between Brock and Venom starts to appear interesting the film throws itself headlong into what feels like an obligatory showdown with a somewhat contrived antagonist.


That first act which I mentioned earlier, drags ‘Venom’ down for a number of reasons. As I said it feels incredibly bloated in how it stalls several times to establish the movie’s central premise. One particularly annoying trait is how it devotes singular scenes that spoil the pacing early on, and never really justify the emotional payoff later in the film. Making us watch Brock run into side characters that will only ever make one more brief appearance simply is not worth the time it takes to establish their relationship. It's also overloaded with exposition that is almost entirely delivered through dialogue, which exists on its most basic functional level. 


None of these structural issues complement the tone, nor does Ruben Fliescher’s direction which seems just as aesthetically confused as the screenplay. There are numerous scenes which seem too awkwardly staged to work as a compelling drama but also played too seriously for me to buy into the comedic routine. In other words there are plenty of times throughout ‘Venom’ which I found myself laughing, but many of them left me unsure as to whether that was the intended response. It wants to find a middle ground between the dark psychological implications of having your own mind and body infected with the comedic fallout that such a shift in personality would produce, but instead ‘Venom’ treads unevenly between the two.


This clash of tones is only made more confusing when the action scenes start to take hold of the film’s narrative. Though they contain a certain energetic pulse to them and feature an occasionally inventive action beat, they also feel muddled and messy. Fleischer keeps the action chaotic but neglects to shed any clarity, and the result are set pieces that possess no sense of geography to them. Too much of ‘Venom’ is spent trying to make out an all-black figure in dimly lit environments fighting with an array of CGI meshes. Much like the film it’s a confusing mess.


Despite some intriguing elements and a committed performance from Hardy, ‘Venom’ is too tonally confused and structurally compromised to work as a compelling entry in this genre.


Result: 4/10

Monday, 1 October 2018

Mandy



"It glowed from within, strange and eternal."


I’m not sure exactly what the wider perception of Nicholas Cage is in the film going consciousness right now. Hopefully we have long moves past perceiving Cage as nothing more than an over the top internet joke because quite frankly Cage has always been too bold and too daring to be labelled as a bad actor. Though some of his energy is misguided at times you can’t deny the raw power Cage puts into his work and when the material suits his specific style of performance the results are phenomenal.


In the Pacific Northwest in 1983, outsiders Red Miller (Nicholas Cage) and Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) lead a loving and peaceful existence. When their pine-scented haven is savagely destroyed by a cult led by the sadistic Jeremiah Sand, Red is catapulted into a psychedelic and blood soaked journey to seek revenge against those who wronged him.


When you take a look back and examine Cage’s career as a whole, it is staggering how many outright great films/performances he has given. From his tragic (and Oscar winning) turn in ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ to the impeccable comedic timing he displayed in ‘Raising Arizona’ as well as his dual performance in ‘Adaptation’, Cage has worked with some of the best and most distinctive voices in recent cinema history such as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and David Lynch.


I say all of this because ‘Mandy’ is not the midnight madness Cage movie it is being sold as. It features all the splattering, blood soaked, neon lit absurdity one would expect, but uses those elements to tell a deeply atmospheric and emotionally powerful story. There are definitely echoes of Panos Cosmatos’ previous film ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ to be found within ‘Mandy’. They are both decidedly melancholic in precisely what they are presenting.


That being said whereas ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ was a hypnotically dense to a point where it’s mournful themes felt in line with the film’s slow pace, ‘Mandy’ is arguably more subversively brilliant in how it blends these weighty thematic undercurrents with the outright insanity of its story. If you were to describe the plot of the film on paper it would appear to resemble any throwaway midnight movie, with chainsaw duels, drug fuelled cannibals and of course Nick Cage on a bloodthirsty rampage. The emotional weight is conveyed entirely through tone and execution.


‘Mandy’ doesn’t seem to indulge any of these action set pieces, or at least not in a righteous sense. As Cage murders his way to his goal of revenge there’s no cathartic drive or triumphant stance. Instead there are just echoes of sadness and loss the film argues can never be truly resolved. The emotional output ‘Mandy’ aims for is played with complete seriousness and feels utterly convincing as it plays out. The last moments in particular amount to haunting gut punch that unifies the insanity of what has transpired with the emotionally grounded reasoning of what motivated it.


Even Cage’s central performance follows the same pattern. Despite the rage, craziness and raw intensity Cosmatos puts this to use in a way that few filmmakers have. When Cage does descend into deranged fits of anger we see it play out in full through its awkward stages of regression and resurgence for an almost uncomfortable amount of time. Cosmatos’ framing of Cage doesn’t just let you witness his anger, but it also basks in the inner pain being conveyed by his performance. It’s a startling level of emotional range that for all its expressionistic gestures, reveals itself to be pitifully nuanced in how it communicates such a long lasting and deep seated anguish.


In fact so much of ‘Mandy’ is nuanced that I fear some of the film’s best displays of craft might go unnoticed behind the anarchy. So much of the characterisation within the film is presented through background details, with many characters hardly speaking at all which in turn says more than dialogue ever could. In fact Cosmatos’ whole approach seems measured and nuanced in a way that a movie which features Nicholas Cage swinging a battle axe would not lead you to believe.


The Italian-Canadian clearly has a preference to execute his vision in a slow and steady form. In ‘Mandy’ the camera rarely moves with great speed, as it pans and zooms in such a measured pace that you might go ages without noticing it. His build up throughout the first act is also meticulously paced as the audience soak in the atmosphere he gradually establishes. Even the action itself is not bombastic or rapid but rather patient and brutal. Cosmatos stares long and hard at the violence on screen as it unfolds, because his world is one where death and pain do not come quickly.


‘Mandy’ is the blood stained exercise in insanity one would expect, but beneath that lies a surprising level of nuance and emotional depth.


Result: 8/10