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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Batman (1989)

You don’t need me to tell you that comic book movies are a dime a dozen at the moment, but none of them look like Tim Burton’s Batman. Overwhelmingly physical in its environs and effects and visually uncomplicated; edited cleanly and held mostly in wide or mid-shots. This is pre-digital, pre-post production short cuts. It feels like a feat of cinematic architecture. Burton built a whole world here. His Gotham is a dark and grand germanic Metropolis which is also, yes, superbly goth and dressed up as a 40s noir. The sensibility of the material and the director line up wonderfully.

All the actors function as both characters and set-dressing, and any distance you feel is re-enforced by the emotional disconnect plaguing most of the characters. Danny Elfman’s boisterous score propels everything forward. His themes and Nicholson’s Joker, really, being the only two ingredients that let you have fun in this otherwise tortured and angsty underworld. They didn’t quite nail the Batman character (Keaton is still my favourite actor to play the role for what it’s worth) but they certainly nailed the tone.

A pretty incredible feat of production design and directorial handwriting, Batmanmight not get as much play in discussions of the comic book genre nowadays – its analogue foundations maybe dating it a bit too much – but it nevertheless continues to cast a shadow over its successors like a monolithic anvil. Year One, indeed.

Watched on blu-ray.

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The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

A terrific subterranean thriller with a primo cast of shaggy dog stars, the kind who seemed to go extinct once the 70s drew to a close. Owen Roizman’s moody photography is soaked in darkness and shadow, with striking anamorphic lens flares throughout. It looks beautiful. There’s also a fun “upstairs/downstairs” dynamic between the two leads; Walter Mathau’s working class stiff in the control room upstairs, Robert Shaw’s stone-faced crook calling the shots in the subway tunnels below, with a snivelling Marty Balsam by his side. Equal parts muscular and grizzled with a great heist plot to boot. Can’t say enough about that David Shire score either. One of those mid-tier 70s classics that never seems to disappear completely, and for good reason. It expertly bridges the best of the day’s genre cinema with the texture and finesse of the blossoming New Hollywood.

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Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

This rewatch has been a long time coming. Zero Dark Thirty is one of those movies that is so dense with information that it’s difficult to penetrate and engage with, especially on first viewing. It’s a slow-burning procedural which spans a decade, teething with terminology-heavy dialogue the film rarely stops to clarify. I remember liking the film, and certain sequences sat on my gut as they unfolded, but the main thing I took away was Jessica Chastain’s performance. After bursting onto the mainstream in 2011 this leading role was her victory lap, cementing her as a mainstay of contemporary leading ladies. Chastain was the heart and soul of the film. Even physically, her porcelain skin and flame coloured hair often feel like the only vibrancy in an otherwise desaturated, cold and masculine world. Whenever I think of Zero Dark Thirty, I think of Chastain’s character, Maya, alone, driven and deep in thought. It’s a great performance, that much I knew, the rest of the film sort of blurred together. Ever since 2012 I’ve been meaning to return to it and bring it back into focus, free of all the expectations that come with any Academy Awards frontrunner.

There’s a lot to be said about the ambition here, as well as Bigelow’s evolution as a filmmaker over the years. This is every bit the filmmaker who made Blue Steeltwenty two years previous but also, aesthetically, a million miles apart. Everything here is so controlled and tightly wound, by the time it culminates in the extended raid on Bin Laden’s compound – which audaciously leaves Maya off-screen for an extended period of time, yet her presence never fades – the weight of this mission and the need to see it completed has become almost unbearable. It’s a masterclass sequence, utilising night vision and walkie-talkie distorted whispers to instil tension and unease with the audio/visual remove of an alien invasion.

As for the ambition, a film like this pretty much has to dictate its own structure. It unfolds at its own pace, free of traditional act structure, obsessed with minutiae and unafraid of narrative repetition in order to accurately depict the kind of setbacks and tedious nature of a subject this complex. There’s a constant dump of information which you naturally just tune out of at a certain point. As in a film like Primer, you don’t need to understand everything the characters are taking about as long as you trust the characters themselves understand it. I got into the rhythms this time around, let it suck me in and worked hard with the film to stay with it. It’s certainly a chore, and not a film I feel the need to revisit again for a long time, but it’s an audacious and difficult work with unwieldy reach and told with impressive control. Chastain is even better the second time around.

Watched on blu-ray.

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Slice (2018)

Slice attempts to draw a high-concept universe that never really comes together. It feels indebted to EC comics as much as it does 80s horror-comedies like Ghostbusters which it cribs from freely. Weirdly though, it has a very cheap aesthetic with make-up effects and production design closer to those found on a haunted house ride in a rusty fairground than, say, Rick Baker or Rob Botin. It’s a rubber world, stretchy and plastic, where actors play “characters” who are there to be colourful and fun but end up lacking personality and gravitas in the process. There’s nothing to latch onto here, it’s all artifice and flat gags, the kind of thing that might work in a five minute music video but at 80 minutes with plot, feels off. All of these choices are intentional though, so it’s not exactly a failure, it just doesn’t work, though you can see what the film is trying to be at every turn. A haphazard comic-strip of a film which sadly gets lost in its own uncanny valley.

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Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)

Nowhere near as classy or as deliberately shot as the first Sicario, which had a visual elegance to offset any iffy screenplay quibbles. In fact, that very style led it to being at the top of my favourite movies of 2015. Day of the Soldado, sans Deakins and Villenueve, is much more about boots on the ground, and unnecessarily goes into nastier territory, more interested in guts and guns, severely lacking the feminine soul that Emily Blunt brought to its predecessor.

Still, there’s a few highlights, including a shootout in the desert that genuinely left me with sweaty palms. Sheridan recycles the “B-plot that becomes relevant in the third act” schtick he used the first time around, but its way clunkier here with some coincidental plotting that unfortunately feels like fingers frantically bashing at a keyboard to get the draft locked in time. Del Toro and Brolin, both so well drawn in the original, are nowhere near as engaging which constantly serves as a reminder for you to ask the same question you uttered when this was first announced: “why the hell would they want to make a sequel to Sicario?”

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Interiors (1978)

Interiors is infamous for being a severe left turn into Bergman-esque chamber-drama for Woody Allen following the widely acclaimed Annie Hall the year before. It’s the first movie he directed he doesn’t act in, is wholly serious, thematically heavy and shot by Gordon Willis through an Autumnal shade that renders everything in browns and shadow. It’s an audacious artistic gambit, and while many rejected it upon release (many didn’t, it was nominated for five oscars) it proved to be an essential move that smashed through a glass ceiling, freeing Allen up to mine this kind of dramatic territory with more complexity moving forward.

The cast is great across the board, it’s a film dominated by the faces of the actresses and every close-up aches with emotional history, as is the overall mood and texture. It’s a film fraught with emotion, deeply concerned with family tensions, unspoken hostilities and often unfolds in cloaked scenes of privacy and intimacy. The Gordon Willis/Woody Allen collaboration is one of my favourites between a director and photographer. You can see how Willis enhanced the material and forced Allen to consider new styles of lighting, composition and coverage. The alchemy created in this run of movies really is quite special, and mightily unusual, especially in the comedies. As for Interiors, the freeform experimentation of Annie Hall solidifies here into something far more painterly and rich. It’s one of the few Allen movies I hadn’t seen before but it has immediately become a favourite in an already-cluttered list.

Watched on Arrow Academy blu-ray.

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