Mandy (2018)

A psychotronic potion so committed to its own combination of high/low/trash/art aesthetics, it’s no wonder us carnivorous cinephiles eat this up like a hallucinogen-tinged three course dinner. Cosmatos’ loyalty to his own metronomic sense of drone pacing might turn a lot of genre-heads off, but it may also hypnotise a few into loving new types of film, where images overthrow narrative or basic viscera as primary stimulation. I can see Mandy being a big gateway drug for the right set of eyeballs, it’s the kind of singular experience that makes you ask, “Wait, you can make films like this?”

This is exactly the kind of heightened wizard’s spell of a movie Nicolas Cage is at home in. He syncs up so precisely with what Cosmatos is trying to do, it should come as no surprise to find that this has inspired a deluge of long overdue “Nicolas Cage is actually one of the greatest actors of his time” takes. As Red (surely named after the King Crimson album of the same name, no?) he is a hulking bear of a man, not far from his turn in David Gordon Green’s Joe, only if you took that character and dropped him into the seven circles of genre hell. This is one of the best performances of the year and, I suspect, one that will gain Cage a lot of added respect and understanding moving forward. Mandy takes you into the Nicolas Cage world of pain.

Like Cage, Cosmatos’ isn’t afraid of a good tightrope. He toes the line between pretension and absurdity with such confidence that you don’t care if his foot slips over too eagerly into one or the other here and there. The images are so potent that you’re actually glad for all the indulgences. Any extra time spent swimming in Cosmatos’ obsessions is a plus in my book. He knows restraint, when to let one frame tell the story but he also doesn’t deny you some good old fashioned face-melting and maximalist thrills should the occasion call for it. One hell of a movie, with hell visualised as a bad LSD trip filtered through a lava lamp and scored to slowcore prog sludge metal. Buy the ticket. Take the ride.

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The Craft (1996)

This movie is so 90s that Fairuza Balk isn’t even the most 90s thing about it. I love how it leans heavily into all that novelty shop wicca imagery with candles, pentagrams and the whole shebang. It was made at a time when that kind of obvious iconography wasn’t beneath the filmmakers. Nowadays The Craft would be all updated to be gritty and techno-heavy and angsty. This is all the better for being made when it was. All the leads are terrific, nobody steps on anybody’s toes and they all compliment one another wonderfully. At its heart this is a potent rally cry for all young girls who feel out of place, weird or misunderstood. It’s a film for all outsiders and a piece of dark escapism they can really grab onto. It doesn’t sugar coat anything and gets tough when it needs to as well as being wholly entertaining. There’s even an Old Lady Peace cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows”.

Watched on blu-ray.

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Death Wish 3 (1985)

By jettisoning the cruel streak that plagued the first two movies and instilling it with a heavy dosage of Cannon Films bombast, the Death Wish series finally delivers a flat-out good time with Death Wish 3. This is easily the funniest one so far. Winner even indulges in a few sight gags (Marty Balsam with a huge gun!) By the time Bronson is draping a chain of bullets around his neck and wielding a gatling gun and rocket launcher, it’s clear we are knee deep in 1980s madness. Kersey’s foes this time are a gang of street hoodlums who zip around on motorbikes and wield chains axes and baseball bats. It’s not far from Charles Bronson vs. The Warriors. The end is an all out bullet ballet of street warfare with cars being transformed into bullet-riddled tin cans and molotov cocktails flung around like tennis balls. There’s also a formidable villain at the head of it all giving Kersey’s vigilanteism an actual target this time rather than a faceless army of thugs. There’s that too, and one of them isn’t faceless because he’s Alex Winter! A fun time serving of Cannon Films entertainment, but as dumb as a bag of hammers.

Watched on blu-ray.

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Death Wish II (1982)

Even more preposterous, crueler and nastier than the first film, Death Wish II somehow manages to be better than its predecessor, or at least more enjoyable and memorable, by doubling down on Winner’s impulses to the point where the whole thing is just ridiculous. The extended rape scene is infamous for its unwavering and gleeful savagery but the opening act’s trawl through a series of ever-increasingly bleak scenarios plays like some sort of dark joke. Rape, murder, rape, attack, rape suicide, and on it goes. The 80s setting also adds a welcome visual alternative to the gritty blandness that usually comes with this material. Seeing Bronson stalk around neon-lit streets, brushing shoulders with punks and new-wave thugs certainly has its pleasures. Oh and why not throw in a droning Jimmy Page score for good measure. Might as well!

As with the previous Death Wish, the plot and violence are stupid but unlike that film this one seems to be in on that silliness with a certain level of knowing, making the whole thing go down easier. There are scrappy fistfights and people getting electrocuted as well as Kersey’s clueless new wife (he moved on fast!) being totally oblivious to her husband’s nocturnal activities, ignoring all the evidence staring her in the face and choosing instead to just smile through all of his half-assed explanations. At the very end of the film Bronson is asked if can make a birthday party happening the following week. He smiles to camera and mugs, “what else would I be doing?” Finally, he seems to understand what kind of movie he’s starring in.

Watched on blu-ray.

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Panic in the Streets (1950)

Kazan always had a knack for discovering new talent. Here Jack Palance is the newcomer and he really does dominate a lot of the proceedings with brute force. He’s full of street-level machismo and his gigantic, unusual face makes for great on-screen subject matter. Elsewhere Richard Widmark is terrific and the feet-on-concrete procedural pace feels like a forebearer of Soderbergh’s Contagion. The odd domestic subplot slows things down here and there, infamously in the third act where the entire film comes to a halt for a husband and wife monologue. Otherwise this is a punchy thriller full of docu-real immediacy.

Watched on blu-ray.

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Road to Perdition (2002)

Conrad Hall’s cinematography…jaw-dropping. The precision in the images and visual story is intoxicating. This is celluloid as ash, the grain glazing everything over in a frosty, funeral-like haze. It’s moody and painterly. A gangster B-pic as seen by Edward Hopper. I could watch this film on a loop just for the images, but I don’t need to because my memory of them never fades. Wow.

Anyway, as far as stories about fathers and sons go this one aint bad. I especially like Hanks’ against-type casting. It is one of the few times he’s tried to debase his persona by playing a cold asshole and he mostly manages it. It doesn’t go all the way of-course, because, as the clunky voice-over tells us immediately, he’s a good man at heart. Paul Newman on the other hand, here appearing in his final big screen role, is sublime. That final scene of his in the rain – the film’s visual splendor reaching its zenith – what a curtain call! Whenever his character is off-screen for long stretches the film does falter and fizzle out. But there’s enough going on to keep it afloat.

On the other end of the spectrum is Jude Law, a matinee idol really getting his hands dirty as a character actor, smearing his good looks into something grotesque. The blading pate, bad teeth and long nails are all good in theory but in totality he ends up coming across a bit too much like a comic-book villain – he’s a rat basically (and no, the fact this was based on a graphic novel isn’t lost on me, but Mendes tunes everything else into lofty cinema-as-opera stylisation whereas Law, in contrast, is effectively operating in the gutter of genre).

Mendes and his technicians really do get so much right here. Every scene has an aesthetic point of view and stylistic conceit. It all cuts together like butter with heavily expressive sound design. It is the epitome of smooth, classy, prestige showboating. Mute this movie though and you could put it in a goddamn museum. Conrad Hall left us with some of his finest work.

Watched on blu-ray.

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Death Wish (1974)

As ugly and brutish as I had heard. Full of self-importance and humourless violence. Winner leans into the vigilante stuff with such pig-headed conviction that you rightfully suspect him of endorsing it. Bronson is solid though, merely along for the ride and clearly not giving much thought to the deeper implications of his character’s actions. Anyone else find it odd that Kersey just decides to wipe out all crime instead of actually going after the assholes responsible for the attack on his wife and daughter? The word overkill certainly springs to mind. The filmmaking is so pointed and heavy handed and the sexual violence unnecessarily grotesque that the film actually becomes somewhat of a visceral experience by provoking an actual reaction out of the viewer in its extremities, which I suppose is the main reason for this film’s legacy. Puzzlingly, Herbie Hancock did the score, adding another highlight to the proceedings.

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