‘Mandy’ Review [Fantasia Film Festival 2018]

 

Nicolas Cage is a good actor. This is an objective fact. I could point you to his 1995 Academy Award winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas, or the variety of great performances he’s put in over the years (Raising Arizona, Adaptation), or how he was able to transform himself into an action star in the late nineties with some legitimately great blockbusters (Face/Off, Con Air, The Rock). But you know and accept all of this deep in your heart. Sure, the list of bad Nicolas Cage movies is probably twice as long as the good ones, but, listen, I’m not going to be that chastises the guy for getting paid for his work., and I never really thought anything away from his good performances.

The thing about Nicolas Cage (and I swear I’m tying this with a serious face), is that he always brings the exact same 100% to every role. Good or bad, if you’re getting Cage, you’re always going to get every single bit of Cage, and that’s led to performances that, to put it lightly, some may deem to be over-the-top or ridiculous. Be it Moonstruck or The Croods, National Treasure or Knowing, you’re going to get the same Nicholas Cage every single time. His self-described acting style is “nouvea-shamanic” or “Western Kabuki.” That’s crazy, but it also makes him unique, and it’s a big part of why I tend seek out as many of his movies as possible.

I feel as if this preamble is necessary before talking about a movie like Mandy (screened at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival), because, quite frankly, it might be the craziest Nicolas Cage movie yet. And I’m well-aware of how loaded a claim that may be, but take one look at the trailer and you’ll see what I mean. Mandy is a hazy, neon, fucking metal movie that is visceral, emotional, deliberately paced, insanely violent, and delightfully gory, and these are all things that a peak Cage performance slots into perfectly.

From director Panos Cosmatos (son of George, director of movies like Rambo and Tombstone) and set in the mysterious, mystical, slightly evil Shadow Mountains of the Mojave Desert in California, in the early eighties,  Mandy is very simply a movie about a man named Red (Cage) who must avenge his girlfriend, the titular Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), after she is captured by a cult led by the charismatic Jeremiah (Linus Roache). It’s a simple, familiar premise that, outside of the existence of relatively unexplained supernatural elements throughout the course of the film, plays out in a relatively straightforward fashion. The first act of the movie is all about Mandy, as the film digs deep into her and Red’s relationship, why it works, how much they love each other and why they’re so happy living alone in the woods, on the outskirts of society.  The second act introduces evil forces that quite easily and ferociously break their bond, sending Red on a downwards spiral, leading him into his quest for straight up, good old fashioned American revenge (the third act).

That probably isn’t far off from the plot of dozens of other films. What sets Mandy apart has to be seen to be believed, experienced rather than explained. The first half of the film is deliberately plodding, setting up the Nicolas Cage freakout scene to end all Nicolas Cage freakouts. The type of scene that could easily fit into that YouTube compilation we’ve all seen a hundred times. A scene that’s everything you want it to be and more, a tracking shot where Cage delivers the performance on his and only his terms, leading us into the final half of a movie that really follows through on every aspect of vengeance that it promises its lead character. There’s a scene where Red fashions a badass steel axe. Another where he visits his friend named Caruthers (Caruthers!!) played by Bill Duke to get back the crossbow he gave him when he decided to settle down and presumably stop murdering people with crossbows. There are wild supernatural creatures in insane armored outfits straight out of a death metal music video that Cage murders over the course of some elaborately choreographed fight scenes. There’s even a goddamn chainsaw fight. The first hour of Mandy may be slow and plodding almost to a fault, but the second hour delivers in every way imaginable. It’s a third act jam-packed with every cool old school action movie trope you could possibly think of, some of it going well beyond any recognizable border of sanity.

Mandy is a movie that is literally build for and around the Nicolas Cage freakout, a scene that presents itself (successfully, thanks to how seamlessly Cage’s performance blends with Cosmatos’ directing) as a pivotal moment, meant to sell you on Red’s grief and the rage he carries deep inside. The film never delves into Red’s past, but you can probably guess that no one moves to the woods to become a lumberjack that late in life if they’re not trying to escape some shadiness. They certainly don’t store crossbows at their friends house if they aren’t worried about what they might do with them. Red doesn’t need a backstory, because that one scene where he’s losing his shit in the bathroom is all you really need. It’s a ridiculous scene, don’t get me wrong, and if you see it with a big enough crowd, it will likely draw its fair share of snickering and laughing, but it still works, because it exists in a place where everything around it is equally ridiculous. It doesn’t really come out of nowhere – this isn’t Nicolas Cage screaming about bees or turning into a vampire – because it’s already been established that he’s grieving in and reacting to a world invested with evil Iron Maiden video extras and cult leaders who love The Carpenters and have elaborate rituals for revealing their penises. Cosmatos views the Nicolas Cage freakout through this hazy, neon lens with all of the sensibilities of the era that Mandy is set in, complete with beautiful, complimentary cinematography from Benjamin Loeb and the final score from the late great Johan Johansson.

Mandy works because it embraces the insanity of Nicolas Cage and builds around it. It’s a movie made specifically for him and what he’s capable of and wants to do. Cosmatos and his movie understand and embrace the kind of performance that Cage and only Cage can provide, and it makes them a match made in heaven. And if you like a good Nic Cage freakout, if you like gory, cathartic violence through straightforward, matter-of-fact storytelling, then Mandy is the movie for you, and it gets 7.5 Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit compilations out of 10.

 

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‘Lifechanger’ Review [Fantasia Film Festival 2018]

 

 

A great idea for a science-fiction/horror movie will only go so far in and of itself. Execution is paramount, and executing on an indie film can be a near impossible task these days, even with the greatest of ideas, as indie filmmakers often face seemingly insurmountable odds. Between the sheer amount of movies out there, indie or otherwise, with expansive budgets and recognizable faces and names attached, it’s hard to skate by on merely just a great idea. A movie like Lifechanger, written and directed by prolific Toronto indie horror filmmaker Justin McConnell, and which had its world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival last week, needs to find an edge and needs to be made competently to avoid being labeled as yet another supernatural slasher flick (of which there are a dime a dozen at a fest like Fantasia).

Luckily, Lifechanger more than delivers in this regard, presenting audiences with a well-written, sleekly-made film that supersedes the conceits of a premise which may have wound up overwrought or pedestrian in the hands of another filmmaker. You probably won’t recognize very many, if any of the actors, and you’ll have to adjust your expectations for the limited special effects and action sequences, but otherwise, this is a solid sci-fi/fantasy horror film with an original, well-executed premise.

Lifechanger follows a man simply known as Drew (voiced in narration by Bill Oberst Jr.) who, for decades, has had the ability to assume the form of any person he comes in contact with. To call it an ability might be over-selling it, as we quickly find out that it’s more of a curse. Drew “absorbs” the form of the people he interacts with, leaving behind empty, dead carcasses that he disposes of at a farm in the country. And he doesn’t have much of a choice, as eventually, his body begins to fall apart and he must move on to his next victim. On top of the regular, blasé instances of self-sustaining murder, Drew is also no stranger to killing people outside of when he does it for his metamorphosis, usually to cover his tracks when someone in the life of whoever identity he’s assumed gets an inkling that something’s wrong. So the viewer is presented with a bit of an internal struggle; Drew justifies his action because he deems it his only means of survival, uncertain of what might happen if he succumbs to the degenerative state of each new body he morphs into. Yet he also murders outside of this, and while he claims not to like it, a self-destructive pattern isn’t exactly a justification for serial murder. Drew is a flawed person and most certainly an antihero. He’s selfish, destructive, and has lost the ability to care about anything other than himself. He’s also an addict, barely trying to justify his substance abuse of cocaine and painkillers as things that will help sustain his current form longer. The film doesn’t try to hide this, as Oberst Jr.’s grim, self-loathing narration has more of a tinge of noir to it, reminiscent of all the Maltese Falcon style of films that inspired things like Max Payne.

In any case, we’re meant to empathize with Drew because he’s on what appears to be a final mission, at the end of his journey, as each body lasts him less time than the last, on a quest to make amends with Julia (Lora Burke), the only woman he ever loved, a girlfriend he was forced to abandon at the worst possible moment, when he had to swap bodies. Every new body he takes over, every move he makes is about making things right with her, but as he tries to get close to her with every new form, things get more and more dire and Drew get sloppier, leaving a trail of bodies and mistakes in his wake destined to catch up with him.

Lifechanger works because it’s more than its cool concept. It works because Justin McConnell has something to say through this character. He has a journey on which to take us, through him, a full-fledged story to tell. One that works outside of the parameters of a shapeshifting serial killer. The kind of thing that could work as a character study, as a story about regrets and fleeting love. This is a story as much about a not about a shapeshifter as it is about a flawed man willing to do anything for love, a man with at least a semblance of dimension to him; whereas other movies might make Drew the villain.

Drew has been shapeshifting and therefore murdering for a long time, unencumbered, seemingly, by the law, and relatively comfortable in every new body he comes across. Throughout the film we see him as several young women, a cop, a dentist, and much more, and he explains certain tips and tricks that allow him to stay in a body longer, such as cocaine and painkillers. Basically, the point is that Drew is an addict, be it to substances or his pattern of shapeshifting and murder. It has a kind of noir tinge to it, aided by Oberst Jr.’s grim, self-loathing narration.

What McConnell accomplishes is especially impressive considering a vast array of actors who have to play not only the characters that Drew murders, but eventually, Drew himself. Over the course of the film Drew is a cop, a dentist, several young women and much more, and the actors, despite being mostly unknowns (many of which have but a few credits on their IMDb), do a pretty good job of making you believe that they’re as much Drew as they are their original character. Barring any restrictions of whatever pool of actors McConnell would have had access to with his budget, this honestly feels like a deliberate choice. Drew is supposed to be good at what he does, with decades upon decades of experience as a shapeshifter and murderer. We’re supposed to believe that he can pass as a receptionist at a dentist’s office as much as we’re supposed to believe him as the dentist himself. Some of these actors do better than others, and getting over that hump might be the tallest task that McConnell asks of the viewer, but they mostly do a fine job under the circumstances.

I’d be curious to know what a movie like Lifechanger would look like with a huge budget, but in many ways that would defeat the purpose. The elevator pitch is that this is a movie about a shapeshifting serial killer, but in reality, it’s a little deeper than that. It’s a movie about the lengths that a flawed person would go to in order to feel the fleeting warmth of love, and how dangerous such a person can be in moments of pure selfishness. It’s about the characters, and that’s something that the filmmaker takes more seriously than you would expect from such such a film, all while being keenly aware of the limitations around him. This is probably the smartest way to make a microbudget indie movie. Lifechanger accomplishes a lot with the short amount of rope that it’s handed, and therefore it gets 7 lifeless carcasses out of 10.

‘Under The Silver Lake’ Review [Fantasia Film Festival 2018]

The word “homage” can often illicit negative reactions when it’s used to describe a movie or a filmmaker. Even masters of the style, such as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, can often be accused of slipping over into something less celebratory when they employ it in their work. Yet I can think of no more appropriate word to describe David Robert Mitchell’s third feature film, Under The Silver Lake (screened last week at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival). At the risk of sounding pretentious, it even feels like an homage to an homage, as it is a movie blending different genres and even different eras of  filmmaking, and chalk-full of references to as well as actual footage of existing work. Maybe it’s just as tacky to call Mitchell’s film a love lever, but that’s honestly what it feels like he’s going for, and, for the most part, it’s a style that mostly works.

Under The Silver Lake is a movie about a perennial slacker named Sam (Andrew Garfield) who doesn’t seem to have a clear line of work, constantly living within a few days of eviction and homelessness yet more concerned about scoring with every girl that crosses his path. The film’s plot kicks off when he meets Sarah (Riley Keough), a gorgeous Manic Pixie Dream Girl that catches his eye while he’s checking out the action in the pool area of his building between hook ups with another girl (played by Riki Lindhome but interestingly never named). His first interaction with Sarah ends too soon, but his quest to woo her is cut short when he discovers that her apartment has been emptied. Sam is further dismayed when he fears Sarah to be dead, launching him into a sweeping mystery as an increasingly ridiculous set of conspiracy theories unfold before him.

The film is officially described as a “neo-noir black comedy crime thriller”, and it probably deserves all of those qualifiers and more. Under The Silver Lake is about a lot of things on paper, as throughout its 140 minute run time Sam is tasked with unraveling a number of increasingly elaborate mysteries and taken on various side quests. Sam runs the gamut of Mitchell’s version of hipster LA, attending parties in the weirdest settings with the most ridiculous of entertainment, like a balloon dancer and a band that calls itself “Jesus and the Brides of Frankenstein” and movie screenings in cemeteries. Everyone he comes across is in every new location he visits, and everything is purposely interconnected. This is a movie that is made to feel small, close-knit, even though the supposed message it presents is grand and sweeping.

And that’s on purpose, as Mitchell sells us this homage full of homages with an eventual message that feels deep and personal and the main character and why he sets out on this quest. Honestly, without spoiling anything, it’s probably one of the only things about the movie that didn’t work for me, as it comes out of nowhere after most of the movie is spent completely unconcerned with who Sam really is or what he cares about. The end of the film, as it pertains to Sam’s arc and journey, it meant to convey that he’s learned something deep and meaningful about himself and why he would go to such lengths to find out what happened to some girl he met, why he would care more about her than himself, but it comes off as flat since this otherwise isn’t a character-driven story. I’m not sure if that ending was a last-ditched effort in the writing stage to salvage a sort of meaningless plot, or if it’s purposely meant as some sort of meta-narrative that went over my head, but I would have been just as happy if this was just a movie about a lazy dude going on a meaningless journey full of dead ends to solve a mystery that doesn’t really matter simply because it’s more interesting than facing his responsibilities. Instead, it’s something else, and it’s sort of tacky.

Anyway, that whole thing sort of had me leaving the theater on a sour note, but having had some time to thing about the movie as a while, I otherwise really enjoyed it. It’s fun, loose, rousingly funny and entertaining from beginning to end. For me, it plays its references and homages perfectly. While they may be too much for some, I thought the way they’re used so heavily and as such a breakneck pace really added something unique to the film. Because Under The Silver Lake manages to balance being a lot of things, thematically, in part by wearing its references and influences on its sleeve, with reckless abandon. It lays a lot of different roots of influence. The most overt as the classic pre-60s films that they literally watch at various points in the film. There’s a lot of Hitchcock in there too. The comparisons you’ll likely see the most are to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. I think there’s a lot of early Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino in there too, since every post 1995 indie movie is in some way influenced by some combination of Mallrats/Clerks/Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction. It’s certainly influenced by grunge and college rock (the soundtrack features multiple R.E.M. song, after all). And that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m pretty keen of describing Under The Silver Lake as the anti-Wes Anderson film. There’s an attention to detail in Mitchell’s work, because the story demands it, but at the same time, it manages to be all over the place. It’s a movie about patterns that don’t seem to fit together but form a larger mosaic. It purposely borrows from other movies and filmmakers, and their idiosyncrasies, in order to make a point about pop culture as a whole. It’s a movie about a lot of things, but also kind of nothing at all at its core. In a sense, I couldn’t really tell you why this movie exists or why I liked it so much. It just sort of works, and it just manages to be incredibly entertaining.

Under The Silver Lake gets 8.5 movie references out of 10.

 

‘Blue My Mind’ Review [Fantasia Film Festival 2018]

 

As someone who has attended and covered Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival for the better part of a decade, I’ve come to expect the unexpected and anticipate the weird. As one of North America’s longest running genre film fests, Fantasia isn’t satisfied with merely presenting attendees with the kind of mainstream horror and science fiction that might get them more clicks and likes. Fantasia is purposely seedy. A good chunk of it wants to operate in the fringes of genre film, because while that kind of stuff might not be as polished or accessible as the kind of horror you can see at a theater chain, it’s the kind of movies that drives filmmaking forward.

Despite all of that, I was still managed to be surprised by one of the first films I managed to see at this year’s festival. I was somewhat late in joining the festivities this year, so Blue My Mind was a late addition to my coverage and went into the Swiss film sort of blind, other than taking a quick peek at the film’s synopsis. And, quite frankly, all that really told me was that this is a coming-of-age drama about a 15-year-old girl named Mia experiencing a transformation all while trying to fit in with the popular girls at school in a new town.

(If you’re a more adventurous filmgoer, and what I’ve said so far appeals to you, I’d suggest closing the window right now (or, you know, checking out some of my other posts) and do the same as I did. If the idea of weird, subversive Swiss filmmaking doesn’t appeal to you, then read on, but be warned that this is as vague as I can be without spoiling what should be a pretty obvious twist.)

But Mia’s transformation isn’t what you’d expect a 15-year-old girl to go through in a movie like this. Blue My Mind plays itself completely straight, almost entirely devoid of any irony or humour. Other than sporadic clues that it leaves in its wake, this is pretty much a straight-up drama about the struggles of being an angsty teenager, going through all the same kind of things any other angsty teenager would. The only difference is that on top of getting her period and facing peer pressure and exposure to alcohol and drugs and sex, Mia just so happens to be, well, turning into a mermaid.

I’m not sure if this kind of movie is common in Switzerland, but in North America, our mermaid films are mostly comedies. And our coming-of-age films tend to lean on the comedic side. Yet there is no comparison between Blue My Mind and, say, Splash, The Little Mermaid or Aquamarine. Nor is this Lady Bird or Boyhood. If anything, Lisa Brühlmann’s debut film seems to draw from things like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis or maybe even The Fly, if we’re pushing it. Brühlmann treats what happens to her main character like a serious thing. As a matter of fact, she treats is as one of many serious things that happen to Mia, as there are arguably worse, more jarring things that she goes through in the movie, and the changes to her body could even considered to be a beautiful thing.

With Blue My Mind, Brühlmann is delivering a message of empathy with the struggle of growing up. She’s presenting the coming-of-age story not with the kind of nostalgic, uplifting tone that we’ve become accustomed to even in the more serious American coming-of-age movies, but rather as dry and dark. The end result is a refreshing and unique movie that subverts expectations. Which is especially impressive when you consider that this is Brühlmann’s first movie out of film school, something which I would have never guessed, not with the finely crafted cinematography or crisp storytelling and fine young actors this movie has to offer.

Blue My Mind is the weird, unique, well-made and the perfect kind of movie for Fantasia. 7.5 angsty sea creatures out of 10.