Mandy (2018)

2019 #34
Panos Cosmatos | 121 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Belgium / English | 18

Mandy

Words feel inadequate to describe Mandy, the sophomore feature from writer-director Panos Cosmatos, the son of George P. Cosmatos, who directed the likes of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Tombstone — films which are not helpful comparisons here, I hasten to add. You could call Mandy an action movie, of a sort, but it’s unlike either of those. It’s not like a whole lot else, really.

Let’s start with the plot. I’m not sure Cosmatos did, but we will. Set in the mid ’80s, it centres around Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and his girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), who live happily in the back of beyond somewhere in the United States. One day a group of Christian cultists happen to drive past Mandy, and their leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), takes a shine to her. With the aid of a demonic biker gang, Sand and co accost Red and Mandy for some nefarious cult-ish purpose. Naturally it does not end well, sending Red on a nightmarishly surreal journey of revenge.

I said Mandy could be considered an action movie, which is true: Red’s revenge naturally leads to some violence, which in this case often come at the end of fights. But if you come just for the action you’re liable to leave unsatisfied, because Cosmatos definitely makes you wait for it. Some of it does satisfy on a visceral, B-movie level (there’s a showdown in a quarry I shan’t spoil by detailing), but its purpose is not to revel in combat.

Nic Cage gripping his huge weapon

Rather, it is very much a horror movie. Not in terms of the obvious connotations of the genre — there’s no supernaturally-powered serial killer, no vampires or werewolves, no jump scares — but in the unnerving atmosphere the film sets out to create. This is what I meant when I said I’m not sure Cosmatos started with the plot: there’s a definite story here, and characters and emotional arcs within that too, but the primary goal seems to be the mood that’s generated and the feelings that instills in the viewer. It’s possible Cosmatos may have bigger ideas on his mind beyond that — some reviewers seem obsessed with the notion that the film wants to explore philosophical concepts but doesn’t do it very well. Perhaps they’re right. I didn’t see it that way, however, taking the whole affair as simply an inescapable dive into a fever dream nightmare experience, where the aesthetics and the sensations they create are the point.

Certainly, a good many elements are on board with this twisted perspective. The performances are certainly in the right space, with Nic Cage going full Nic Cage as he travels deeper into the nightmare, the impact of his barminess emphasised by him being fairly normal at the start. As the cult-leading big bad, Roache steps up to the plate of trying to equal Cage’s insanity, and I’d say he gets there — an impressive feat. Around them, Cosmatos lets thing unfurl at a leisurely, dreamlike pace. Some will say it’s too slow and succumb to boredom, but I think it’s very deliberate — though I will certainly allow that it does go too far in this regard at some points.

Crazy cultists, crazy colours

Further to that, he blends in a lot of surreal and fantasy-inspired imagery and visual flourishes, with Benjamin Loeb’s photography often pushing into extremes of colour (lots and lots of red), lens flare (so much more effectively than anything J.J. Abrams has ever been responsible for), and a deliberately-created haziness that, once again, the best descriptor for is “dreamlike”. That said, the shot-on-film, pushed-to-extreme aesthetic also helps evoke low-budget ’80s fantasy/horror films, in a kind of race-memory way — I couldn’t give you specific examples of what films I feel its emulating, but there’s something about the overall style that gives that vibe. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie score also hits those same beats, in terms of both the era recreated and the film’s own unsettled atmosphere.

Mandy is today’s premiere on Sky Cinema, which feels like an ill fit to me. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I always feel like Sky Cinema (and by extension its viewer base) is much more focused around mainstream blockbuster kind of movies, especially for a Saturday premiere. Instead, it feels like Mandy should be making its TV debut on Film4 at about 11pm in the middle of the week (I won’t be surprised if that’s where it ends up getting its first network TV airing). I can see some tuning in expecting a violent revenge action-thriller and giving up after a few minutes of its particular weirdness. For those on its wavelength, however, it’s an experience (and it’s definitely an experience) that’s thrilling in very a different way.

5 out of 5

Mandy is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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Triple Frontier (2019)

2019 #39
J.C. Chandor | 125 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.11:1 | USA / English, Spanish & Portuguese | 15 / R

Triple Frontier

Former US soldier Santiago ‘Pope’ Garcia (Oscar Isaac) is struggling to make a difference as a consultant to a South American police force when his informant (Adria Arjona) finally gives him the location of powerful drug lord Gabriel Lorea (Reynaldo Gallegos), who’s hiding deep in the jungle surrounded by ill-gotten gains to the tune of many millions of dollars. Deciding the cops are too corrupt to handle this, Pope reaches out to his old military buddies — commander and strategist Tom ‘Redfly’ Davis (Ben Affleck), pilot Francisco ‘Catfish’ Morales (Pedro Pascal), and brothers Ben and William ‘Ironhead’ Miller (Garrett Hedlund and Charlie Hunnam) — to take on one last ‘off the books’ mission: kill Lorea and pocket the money for themselves. But they decide it’s too immoral so stay at home and do nothing.

Not really! Of course they agree to do it, risking their lives and their moral code for a big payday they all desperately need.

On the one hand Triple Frontier is a standard men-on-a-heist actioner, and a lot of people seem to have dismissed it as such. On the other, however, there’s quite a lot of different things going on here. Almost too many, in fact, as arguably the film doesn’t have time to explore them all. There’s a distinct thread about the treatment of veterans in the US — that these guys have been used up and spat out, and now struggle with their mental health and/or to even make a living in regular society. It also ties this into some “warrior code” mentality, which I’ve heard said is quite a realistic depiction of the mindset these kinds of guys have in real life, but does come across as a bit macho bullshit at times here (there’s a scene where they’re camping in the jungle, bemoaning that they’re the last of their kind, etc).

Men mid-mission

As well as these themes, there’s some surprise genre mash-ups going on, too. Nothing too radical, but the film doesn’t play out as I expected (vague-ish spoilers follow). At the start, it’s has almost a Sicario vibe, particular in a sequence where Pope leads a violent raid on a gang hideout. Then it gets stuck into what the trailers promised: a bunch of military professionals pulling off a heist. Naturally, it doesn’t all go according to plan (no good heist movie has everything go according to plan!), and as the guys struggle to make their escape the film makes a hard turn into Treasure of the Sierra Madre territory, which I did not see coming. It doesn’t dig into the psychology of greed anything like as much as that film, but as the team trek through the jungle and feud amongst themselves, the film takes on a “jungle adventure” aspect I wasn’t expecting. This is where I think those claims of it being just a “standard” kinda military-men-on-a-mission movie are particularly wide of the mark.

Apparently the film has been struggling through development since 2010, presumably after screenwriter Mark Boal won his Oscar for The Hurt Locker. That film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, was originally attached (she’s still credited as a producer), and the film also bounced around a couple of different studios (before winding up at Netflix) and churned through a long list of possible cast members (according to IMDb, they include the likes of Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Denzel Washington, Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, Tom Hardy, Channing Tatum, Mahershala Ali, and Casey Affleck).

Ben Affleck, pictured with his ties to the DC Universe

I feel like it ended up in a pretty decent place, however. The five guys are believable as ex comrades, and it’s all very well put together, with slick but not flashy direction from J.C. Chandor, helmer of the excellent All is Lost, plus Margin Call and A Most Violent Year, neither of which I’ve seen but I’ve heard are good. Triple Frontier does nothing to besmirch his rep. It’s crisply shot by DP Roman Vasyanov — like the direction, not excessively flashy but still strong, including some great aerial stuff. Apparently this is the first film to use the full 6.5K resolution of the ARRI Alexa 65 camera, which is why it retains the camera’s unique aspect ratio of 2.11:1. In truth, it doesn’t make much difference, because it’s near as dammit the 2:1 that’s so popular among other Netflix productions, but that works for me.

Triple Frontier doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but I think some of the commentary dismissing it as mere standard fare has done it some disservice. As a heist/action movie it’s more than competent, with some turns and developments that keep it surprising and fresh, and visuals that reward seeing it on the best-quality screen you can.

4 out of 5

Triple Frontier is available on Netflix now.

Serenity (2019)

2019 #27
Steven Knight | 106 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Serenity

Sorry, Browncoats — this has nothing to do with Joss Whedon’s sci-fi classic. But if you’re instead worried this might supplant that in the general consciousness, never fear: despite coming with the pedigree of a cast headlined by Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway (plus Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, and Diane Lane), and a quality writer-director in Steven Knight (the man behind Locke and Peaky Blinders), this Serenity is a dud of epic proportions. I mean, the fact that, even with those names involved, it’s being dumped in the UK as a Sky Cinema Original should tell you something…

On the remote tropical paradise of Plymouth Island, Baker Dill (McConaughey) is a fisherman mostly taking tourists out on his boat, but eager to catch that one tuna that eludes him (a tuna isn’t quite as romantic a nemesis as a white whale, but I guess we’ll have to go with it). One day, his ex (Hathaway) turns up on the island with a proposition: she’ll pay him $10 million to drop her abusive husband (Clarke) in the ocean for the sharks. She has extra leverage in that hubby is beginning to get abusive towards the son Baker left behind, but who he still cares about. If that wasn’t enough of a moral quandary, there’s more to Plymouth Island than meets the eye, including a fishing equipment company rep who’s desperate to meet with Baker, but keeps just missing him…

An indecent proposal?

Serenity pitches itself as an island noir, and on the surface it ticks many of the right boxes, especially once Hathaway turns up, looking every inch the part of a classic femme fatale. You can tell she’s hamming it up a little too, playing into the role (with McConaughey, it’s harder to be sure…) It’s also beautifully lensed by DP Jess Hall, capturing both attractive sunny climes and a more overtly noir-ish vibe once a dramatic storm rolls in. But concurrent to that it’s clear some other mystery is going on, and here things get a bit more awkward, the film fumbling not to give too much away too soon. Personally, I think it fails — I guessed the twist pretty early, which I’m pretty sure was not intended, but if you don’t then it’s not cleverly built up to, it’s just muddled.

Once the twist is confirmed — and I say “confirmed” rather than “revealed” because, even though I guessed it, it seemed so loopy that I thought I must be wrong — the whole affair takes on a different light. But it’s not a well thought-through one. It’s the kind of twist that changes your perspective on everything you’ve seen, which is usually a neat development, but here it raises way more questions than it answers. To go into them would be spoilery… so, spoilers follow throughout the next paragraph.

So, we’re supposed to believe this kid has programmed a fishing game starring his dad — not wholly implausible. But it’s one where his dad frequently gets his kit off and shags around for money? I guess we could excuse this as the kid’s been playing too much stuff like Grand Theft Auto and thinks that’s what happens in games, if we’re being kind. But one day he decides to rewrite this game to make it about his dad committing murder, which the character in the game then objects to, and the game turns its own existing rules into an NPC to fight back? What, did this kid accidentally just program a full blown AI? Or several AIs? Or are we going with a Toy Story-esque notion where video game characters are actually sentient? And then somehow his dad actually doing it in-game encourages the kid to murder his real-life stepdad, which we learn thanks to some cheap news voiceover?

So far so noir

Serenity is such a ridiculous mess of a movie that it almost swings back round to being entertaining in its audacity. For me, though, it would need to be better constructed to pull that about-turn off. If it had fully considered the twist and its implications, thought it all through and played by all the necessary rules, some of the people who are laughing at it would still be laughing at it just for the basic concept, but I’d admire it at the very least for committing to its bit. Because it doesn’t, the only reason to consider watching is to marvel at its bizarre eccentricity.

2 out of 5

Serenity will be available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight, with a limited UK theatrical release from tomorrow.

Ocean’s Eight (2018)

2019 #23
Gary Ross | 110 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, German, French & Hindi | 12 / PG-13

Ocean's Eight

This somewhat belated spin-off from the Ocean’s trilogy of all-star heist movies (it came eleven years after the last one) introduces us to Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), the sister of George Clooney’s eponymous character from the trilogy, and also an experienced con artist. Recently released from prison, she sets about assembling a crew for an audacious heist: to lift a near-priceless necklace during the prestigious Met Gala.

Said crew is all female — well, the crews in the previous trilogy were almost exclusively male, so why not? And just as those casts were full of big-name stars, so too is this. If Bullock’s in the Clooney role then Cate Blanchett takes over the part of Brad Pitt: the cool, in-control ‘sidekick’ who really makes Ocean’s grand plan happen. Fortunately, the film doesn’t slavishly map everyone else onto roles from the previous movies. One of the key parts is a fashion designer, played by Helena Bonham Carter — not a job that’s normally required for a heist, I don’t think. Here, it’s their way to access the mark who’ll be wearing the necklace, played by Anne Hathaway. The rest of the titular crew is rounded out by names of varying degrees of famousness, depending on your exposure to their previous work: Rihanna, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, and Awkwafina.

As a gang, they’re quite likeable, fun to hang around with, and the cast seem to be having a good time. They’re somewhat hampered by a screenplay that rarely gives them the sparky material the previous bunch had to work with, though, so I’d suggest if there’s a Nine they get someone to punch up the dialogue and give this lot the text they deserve.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven... yep, eight. There's eight of them.

Having said it doesn’t wholly map onto the previous movies, Eight massively lifts one plot thread from Eleven, which is that Debbie’s plan is secretly a way to get back at an ex boyfriend (Richard Armitage). Okay, in Eleven Danny Ocean is trying to win back his old lover and/or punish her new boyfriend, whereas here those characters are kinda combined as Debbie Ocean is trying to punish her old lover, but, well, the basic conceit is the same, right? The film does nothing to acknowledge that fact, just leaving it hanging there — awkwardly, if you’re au fait with the first movie. Conversely, whereas Danny was obsessed with his revenge to the point it risked derailing the main heist, for Debbie it seems to be a side benefit.

That isn’t necessarily better, mind: it lowers the stakes of both the subplot (because she doesn’t seem that bothered) and the main plot (because she’s not in danger of getting sidetracked), so why include something so familiar? Indeed, the whole plot is relatively light on stakes, with the team carrying off everything with nary a hitch — barely any need to improvise or change the plan here, they’ve just got it covered. The one potential problem that does arrive is solved instantly, even before the heist begins, with such a straightforward fix that they don’t even need to modify the plan to incorporate it. It’s not even fake jeopardy, it’s just non-jeopardy.

The whole film veers dangerously close to blandness in this fashion. Director Gary Ross may be a friend and colleague of Steven Soderbergh, but he doesn’t seem to have picked up the trilogy director’s inventiveness. There’s some mildly flashy editing scattered about, and maybe one creative shot / bit of sound design (when the camera follows the necklace underwater, the non-diegetic music gets muffled like, you know, we’re underwater), but it lacks the sophistication and verve Soderbergh brings. It feels like it needs a kick up the arse, basically.

“Could you just give it a bit of a kick up the arse?”

I even began to worry it was going to end with no attempt at genuine twists or surprises whatsoever, aside from a few minor but not terribly exciting reveals, which is not good for a heist movie — part of the point, surely, is that they also pull off a kind of narrative heist on the viewer. Fortunately, Eight does have a trick up its sleeve, which is quite fun. But even then, the big plan is still a pretty simple heist, which the film tries to pretend is complicated by showing Heist 101 stuff in excruciating detail (there’s a whole scene devoted to Rihanna slightly changing the position of two security cameras, one… click… at… a… time…)

Yet for these faults, Eight still works as breezy entertainment. It’s not as perfectly slick and polished as Eleven — but then, that would’ve been asking a lot (as pure-entertainment capers go, Eleven is virtually flawless). It’s not as boundary-pushing as Twelve (a seemingly muddled film that gets interesting the more you think/read about it), but nor is it as aimless and derivative as I found Thirteen. It lacks the creative spark behind the scenes (either in the screenplay or directing departments) that could’ve elevated it, but it’s an easy way to spend a diverting couple of hours.

3 out of 5

Ocean’s Eight is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

2019 #11
Dan Gilroy | 112 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Velvet Buzzsaw

The team behind neo-noir modern classic Nightcrawler (writer-director Dan Gilroy, stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, cinematographer Robert Elswit, among others) reunite for this direct-to-Netflix genre mash-up — it’s part art-world satire, part mystery-thriller, part horror. The Verge described it as “Robert Altman’s Final Destination”, and that so succinctly articulates what the film reminded me of that I decided to just lift it. Well, just pilfering someone else’s work is in-keeping with the film’s themes, at least.

Set in the world of high art, it stars Gyllenhaal as all-powerful critic Morf Vandewalt, whose reviews can make or break sales worth millions of dollars, plus the careers that go along with that. One person his tastes always align with is prominent dealer Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), whose assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is falling out of favour due to relationship woes. But when her reclusive neighbour dies, she finds his apartment full of striking and original artwork, which she promptly steals. Mort is bowled over by their quality, Rhodora muscles in on the sales, and soon the deceased artist is a sensation. But there’s more to his disturbing work than meets the eye, and soon people start dying…

So far so Final Destination, but not very Robert Altman, I know. The latter comes more in the execution than the subject matter, in particular that this is really an ensemble piece — the marketing pitched Gyllenhaal as the lead, I guess because he’s the biggest and most marketable name, but Ashton’s role is at least as large and central, if not more so, for example. Plus, as well as those two and Russo that I’ve already mentioned, there are significant roles for Toni Collette (as an art buyer for a museum), John Malkovich (as an uninspired elder-statesman artist), Natalia Dyer (as an intern struggling to break in), Billy Magnussen (as a handyman who wants to be an artist), Tom Sturridge (as a rival dealer), and Daveed Diggs (as an up-and-coming artist everyone wants to sign). Before the thriller and horror elements come into play, this spread of characters makes the film seems much more like a portrait of the art world from multiple different perspectives.

Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining

Gilroy has specifically cited Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player as an influence on how he approached things. By complete coincidence, I watched The Player just a few days before this, and so that similarity was very clear to me. That said, Gilroy’s lack of experience relative to Altman perhaps shows through. Where The Player was very pointed and effective in its satire, Velvet Buzzsaw takes more of a vague, scattershot view of the contemporary art scene. Gilroy does have a specific theme in mind — specifically, the disjunct between art and commerce, and their negative effects on each other — which manifests in various ways (it’s part of the film’s horrors as well as its satire), but that seems slightly disconnected from the Altman-esque “different perspectives” approach. Having so many key characters does lend a slightly different feel from what you might expect, but it doesn’t lead to the same kind of forensic dissection that Altman was capable of.

It’s just one aspect of the film that seems somewhat muddled. It’s not fatally flawed, but there are things about it here and there that just don’t seem to add up. It’s almost as if scenes had been arbitrarily removed; not ones that particularly affect the plot, but maybe ones that affect the details. For example, at one point Mort exclaims that he’s been seeing strange things recently, but the only evidence we’ve seen of that came with the thing that prompted his exclamation. These kind of vague, not-quite-right bits pop up now and then. You’d almost wonder if it had something to do with the film’s horror side, like it was trying to be disquieting, but it doesn’t correlate or connect up to the actual horror bits.

About to connect with the film's horror bits

And yet, despite that, it’s so good in places. In particular, it looks gorgeous, especially in UHD. That’s how Elswit has shot it, of course, but also some of the striking visual ideas Gilroy throws into the mix. His screenplay definitely has its moments also. One of Mort’s first reactions to the startling work Josephina has unearthed is that “critique is so limiting and emotionally draining,” which is just begging to be quoted in reviews. That line was in the trailer, so it’s already threatened to take on a life of its own outside the film, but it’s certainly not the only meme-in-waiting that’s thrown up. “The admiration I had for your work has completely evaporated” is another choice example. Heck, about half the rest of the dialogue is as well, never mind some reaction shots.

Sometimes, star ratings really aren’t nuanced enough to represent one’s reaction to a film. There are bits of Velvet Buzzsaw I adored — performances, scenes, individual lines, the cinematography — at a level normally found in a five-star film. But there are other things it fumbles, like the way the story sometimes jumps as if scenes have been deleted, or the way it doesn’t seem to have an answer for some of its mysteries, or the way the trailer spoilt pretty much everything (not a fault of the film itself, I know, but still a grievance). Some of those err down towards a three-star experience. It’s quite frustrating in that respect. Overall, there’s enough I liked that I’m going to give it a four, albeit a cautious one.

4 out of 5

Velvet Buzzsaw is available on Netflix now.

Unsane (2018)

2018 #219
Steven Soderbergh | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.56:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Unsane

Probably the best-known thing about Unsane is that Steven Soderbergh shot it on an iPhone. Well, he’s not the first person to shoot a feature on a phone, nor will he be the last, but I guess he must’ve been the most high-profile. It’s a shame that’s all people seemed to talk about, though, because the content of the film is worth a look too.

It’s a psychological horror-thriller starring Claire Foy as Sawyer, a young professional woman struggling with a past trauma, who tries to simply get an appointment with a counsellor but ends up accidentally committing herself to a mental hospital. Although initially only in for a 24-hour assessment, her attempts to get out are only seen as further proof she has problems, and her ‘voluntary’ stay is extended against her will.

This early part of the film plays more like a drama than a horror movie, in that it’s fairly grounded in plausible reality — it doesn’t seem to be some nefarious scheme that gets Foy incarcerated, but rather bureaucracy and misunderstanding. Later the film takes a swing into outright horror territory, and I’ll discuss that in a moment, but it’s the first act that is most genuinely frightening. Events move inexorably forward in such a way that you can imagine yourself in Sawyer’s shoes, imagine yourself making the same unwitting mistakes that she does, imagine what you might try in that situation to get out of it, and imagine how you’d fail just as badly as she does. The film doesn’t gloss over any “if only she’d done this it would’ve been fine” moments — she tries everything rational, and it still goes wrong.

Hello, Domino's?

But, as I said, later things change a bit: Sawyer claims that one of the men working at the hospital is actually her stalker. Obviously this just contributes to the staff thinking she’s deranged, because of course a mental health institution wouldn’t employ a convicted stalker, but it makes us wonder: is it the stress of the situation getting to Sawyer, making her see things? It would certainly be ironic — the place that’s meant to ‘make’ her sane actually driving her insane. Or maybe the staff are right, and Sawyer is an unreliable narrator?

From there the film only becomes further immersed in genre-ness. It loses that “what would you do?” aspect, but I was engaged enough by then to just go with the story; others have found the tonal shift jarring, however. It definitely keeps you guessing — even after a mid-way reveal, you’re still unsure what further twists it may or may not pull. But it’s a funny old movie, in a way, because the shift from believable real-life horrors to inhabiting a more overt Horror mode means it sits at a hitherto unimagined crossroads between schlocky madhouse B-thriller and arthouse psychological drama. Well, I guess that’s the kind of thing we should expect from Soderbergh by now: a genre movie reimagined with auteurist sensibilities. Even when it takes the shape of a B-movie thrill-ride, there remains some psychological truth to the trauma Sawyer’s suffered and how it affects her. It’s also casually damning of things like the US healthcare/insurance infrastructure, which is, of course, a real-life problem. It’s always nice to sneak a valid real-world point into what is essentially a thrills-and-chills flick.

Just say no

The sense of unease is further emphasised by the shooting style, because it looks… odd. Odd how? It’s hard to say, exactly. It’s partly the aspect ratio, which for some reason is 1.56:1. I’m perfectly used to watching films in 4:3 or 1.66:1, so pillarboxing doesn’t bother me, but it being a nonstandard shape is surprisingly disconcerting. It also seems that Soderbergh hasn’t just used the iPhone camera as-is, but has attached at least one different lens. I suppose some might argue that’s cheating, but normal to add lenses to the basic camera in other modes of filmmaking, so why not? I’m no expert on lenses so can’t quantify what he’s done exactly, but there’s a sort of wide-angle, sometimes even fish-eye, effect that is, again, strange. Combine all that with an even-less-definable quality that seems to wash over the whole image, like it’s lacking resolution or definition or something, and I’m not sure if the film’s visual style is down to the limitations of the tech or if it’s a deliberate emphasis of them. Whatever the reason, it kinda makes me hope no one ever chooses to shoot a film on an iPhone again, because while it can be done, the results aren’t great.

And yet those results really do fit the mood of this film. I kinda hope no one copies that tech choice ever again, but, nonetheless, Soderbergh’s made it work for the story he’s telling. That story — with its ups and downs, it’s whiplash tonal changes, its very imaginable horrors and its only-in-a-movie ones — means the fact Unsane was shot on an iPhone is probably the least interesting thing about it.

4 out of 5

Unsane is available on Sky Cinema as of yesterday.

Steven Soderbergh’s next film, High Flying Bird, was also shot on an iPhone. It’s released on Netflix on 8th February.

Blindspot Review Roundup

Of the 22 Blindspot/WDYMYHS films I watched in 2018, I still haven’t posted reviews for 18 of them. (Jesus, really?! Ugh.) So, here are three to get that ball rolling.

  • The 400 Blows (1959)
  • Big Fish (2003)
  • Strangers on a Train (1951)


    The 400 Blows
    (1959)

    aka Les Quatre Cents Coups

    2018 #4
    François Truffaut | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France / French | PG

    The 400 Blows

    One of the first films to bring global attention to La Nouvelle Vague, François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical drama introduces us to Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a schoolboy in ’50s Paris who plays havoc both at home and at school, which naturally winds up getting him in trouble. The film is both a portrait of misunderstood youth (Antoine isn’t so much bad as bored) and indictment of its treatment (neither his school nor parents make much effort to understand him, eventually throwing him away to a centre for juvenile delinquents).

    The film barely contains one blow, never mind 400, which is because the English title isn’t really accurate: it’s a literal translation of the original, which is derived from the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups“, the equivalent meaning of which would be something like “to raise hell”. Imagine the film was called Raising Hell and it suddenly makes a lot more sense.

    Anyway, that’s beside the point. As befits a film at the forefront of a new movement, The 400 Blows feels edgy and fresh, that aspect only somewhat blunted by its 60-year age. I was thinking how it was thematically ahead of its time, but I suppose Rebel Without a Cause was also about disaffected youth and that came out a few years earlier, so I guess it’s more in the how than the what that 400 Blows innovated.

    Either way, it’s an engaging depiction of rebellious youth, that remains more accessible than you might expect from a film with its art house reputation.

    5 out of 5

    Big Fish
    (2003)

    2018 #32
    Tim Burton | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Cantonese | PG / PG-13

    Big Fish

    After getting distracted into the mess that was his version of Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton returned to the whimsical just-outside-reality kind of fantasy that had made his name. Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, it’s about the tall tales of a dying man (played by Albert Finney on his deathbed and Ewan McGregor in his adventurous prime), and his adult son (Billy Crudup) who wants to learn the truth behind those fantastical stories.

    Most of Big Fish is fun. It exists at the perfect juncture between Burton’s sense of whimsy and a more realistic approach to storytelling — he’s reined in compared to some of the almost self-parodic works he’d go onto shortly afterwards made since, but it doesn’t seem like he’s constrained, just restrained. With a mix of many funny moments, some clever ones, and occasional somewhat emotional ones, it ticks along being being all very good.

    But then the ending comes along, and it hits like a freight train of feeling, clarifying and condensing everything that the whole movie has been about into a powerful gut-punch of emotion. It’s that which elevates the film to full marks, for me.

    5 out of 5

    Strangers on a Train
    (1951)

    2018 #176
    Alfred Hitchcock | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Strangers on a Train

    Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s thriller novel, in which two men get chatting on a train and agree to commit a murder for each other — as you do. In fact, one of the men — tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) — was just making polite conversation and doesn’t want to be involved; but the other — good-for-nothing rich-kid (and, as it turns out, psychopath) Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) — really meant it, and sets about executing the plan.

    Strangers on a Train is, I think, most famous for that premise about two strangers agreeing to commit each other’s murder; so it’s almost weird seeing the rest of the movie play out beyond that point — I had no idea where the story was actually going to go with it. It’s a truly great starting point — the kind of “what if” conversation you can imagine really having — and fortunately it isn’t squandered by what follows — the “what if” scenario spun out into “what if you actually followed through?” Naturally, I won’t spoil where it goes, especially as you can rely on Hitch to wring every ounce of suspense and tension out of the premise.

    Aside from Hitch’s skill, the standout turn comes from Walker, who makes Bruno a delicious mix of charming and scheming, confident and pathetic, and brings out the homosexual subtext without rubbing it in your face (well, it was the ’50s).

    5 out of 5

    The 400 Blows, Big Fish, and Strangers on a Train were all viewed as part of Blindspot 2018, which you can read more about here.

  • Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

    2018 #261
    David Slade | “90” mins | TV (HD) | 2.20:1 | UK & USA / English | 15

    Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

    The latest addition to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror universe is the kind of work that pushes at the boundaries of form and medium — and therefore is the kind of work that challenges how I count things here at 100 Films. Is it a film? An episode of TV? A video game? Or is it genuinely something new? Well, it’s not really a video game — it’s not interactive enough to qualify as that. So is it a TV episode, then? It carries the Black Mirror branding, and that is a TV series. Plus it’s not a theatrical release… but then, neither are most Netflix films. Indeed, Bandersnatch carries its own listing on Netflix (as a standalone title, not an instalment of the series), and is promoted by Netflix as an “interactive film”. So, taking them at their word, I’ve decided that means it counts as a film.

    It’s also, I think, very accurate branding — they debated internally how it should be promoted, and I think they’ve landed on the right term for it. As I said before, it’s not really a video game — it’s not as interactive as a gamer would expect it to be. The debate between film vs. TV episode is tighter, but when isn’t it these days? Either way, it’s not just your regular passive Netflix-viewing experience, because it is interactive. In practice, it plays like a video version of Choose Your Own Adventure books — you know what those are, right? I’ve heard some Young People don’t, which saddens me in my apparently-old-now early 30s. If you don’t know, in a CYOA book you’d read a passage of story, then be asked to make a choice on behalf of the hero; for Option A, you’d turn to page X, and for Option B you’d turn to page Y, and so on from there, with your choices dictating your path through the story.

    No reading required

    Bandersnatch is similar, only without all the manual flicking back and forth: every so often (roughly every three to five minutes, determined as the optimal period of time by Netflix’s product testers) you’re presented with two choices on screen and have ten seconds to pick one. Which you choose decides what you see happen next. (If you don’t choose, Netflix decides for you. Make no choices whatsoever and you’re led on a predetermined route that gets you through a full story in the shortest time possible.) Sometimes these choices are small (which breakfast cereal to eat?), sometimes significant (accept a job offer?). Netflix remembers them all, even the minor ones, which have knock on effects later. They made a rod for their own back in this respect, because having to account for viewers’ early choices led to requiring alternate scenes later on that only vary in how they include the viewers’ fundamentally-meaningless earlier choice. But that’s Netflix’s behind-the-scenes problem, not ours as viewers. Suffice to say, they’ve put the work in, and those little touches help make for an even more immersive experience: the choices themselves may have no bearing on the plot, but the fact the film remembers them and then uses them again later is a kind of meaning in itself.

    By this point you’re probably wondering what it’s actually all about, especially if you’re not merely wowed by the technology. (If you are wowed by the technology, check out this article at Wired which goes into more detail about what was required.) Set in 1984, we’re introduced to 19-year-old Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), who lives with his dad (Craig Parkinson) and wants to be a video game designer. He’s managed to wangle a meeting with the company who publish games by his idol, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter). Stefan’s pitch is Bandersnatch, an adaptation of a classic Choose Your Own Adventure novel by Jerome F. Davies, who went mad. Stefan found the book among the possessions of his dead mother, an event which has left him seeing a therapist (Alice Lowe). As Stefan begins to write the program for Bandersnatch… well, what happens next is up to you.

    Everybody play the game of life

    You can already see how content is reflecting form (you’re playing a Choose Your Own Adventure game about a guy writing a Choose Your Own Adventure game, just in case you needed that spelling out for you), and, well, I don’t want to spoil anything (as much as you can spoil anything about a film where every viewer will have a different experience), but it goes further down the rabbit hole than that. Trust Brooker and the Black Mirror team to have taken a new, emerging technology and made a drama about it — I mean, that’s pretty much the series’ MO. You can rely on them to not make things as straightforward as they first appear, either. Most of the time the film offers two options, each leading you down a different path, but sometimes it mixes it up (to say how would be to spoil the experience, like attempting to relate a joke from a comedy). And if you’re curious about how alternate pathways play out, don’t worry, you won’t have to watch the film from the start every time: after certain “game over” points, Bandersnatch offers the chance to jump back to earlier decisions and choose differently. If you’re interested enough to continue, this is definitely worth doing: as I said earlier, Netflix remembers all your choices — there are sometimes advantages to choosing that ‘continue’ option instead of starting from scratch at a later date.

    Perhaps the most impressive thing about Bandersnatch, considering all the myriad choices and paths and possibilities it presents to the viewer, is that it all makes sense. That might sound like Filmmaking 101, but it’s a massive pitfall that would’ve been so, so easy for them to fall into. And they made it a more complicated job for themselves too, insisting the choices viewers make were genuinely meaningful and affected what happened and where the story went. It’s very cleverly written and constructed — it’s not designed to force you down a certain path, or give you a fake choice that doesn’t really change anything, but instead to do those things while still building to a cohesive whole. Yes, of course it’s not total free will to do whatever you fancy, and sometimes there’s no escaping a certain choice or development… but, with the way Brooker has married story and presentation medium, that’s all kinda part of the point.

    Suspicious Stefan

    If you think about how Bandersnatch was made — the challenge it presented to Brooker as writer, to director David Slade, and to the cast having to negotiate their characters’ various emotional arcs across different permutations of similar scenes — it becomes even more impressive on a technical level. And that’s partly because you don’t have to consider the behind-the-scenes logistics to find this an enjoyable experience. They’ve executed it so consummately that you can just watch it, play it, experience it without needing to perform mental gymnastics to make it fit together, because they’ve accounted for all that and filmed the necessary alternate stuff and been certain it all pieces together. So you can instead apply brain power to what the film has to say about choice and free will, and to working out which alternative options you could choose and which parts of the story you perhaps haven’t experienced yet.

    Plus, to an extent, how much you get out of Bandersnatch is rewarded by how much you’re prepared to put in. As I mentioned earlier, at the simplest level you can just put your remote down and watch it play out a 40-minute-ish Black Mirror episode via its default choices (selected by Brooker), giving you the most basic version of the story (I haven’t done this, but I’m tempted to give it a go). Or you can play through until you reach one of the five endings that bring you to the choice of a credits scroll. (Netflix’s official line is that there are five endings. Depending how you count it, there are definitely more.) Or you can keep going and going, taking those “continue” options and seeing where different choices lead you. Sometimes, they lead you to entirely new places. And while there are multiple endings, there’s an “official” ending, too; one where the credits roll and you end up back at the Netflix menu screen (or, I guess, go to something else playing, if you’re one of those weirdos who hasn’t turned that feature off), rather than another continue option.

    Play on

    I played on until I came across that particular finale — partly because I’m a completist, partly because I was so engrossed in what I was watching. Did I experience every permutation the film has to offer? No, I’m pretty sure I didn’t; but I’m also pretty sure I experienced the bulk of the major ones. Did I get “lucky” that it took me so long to find that final-ending, meaning I saw a lot of the film before I got there? Put another way: is there a quicker path to that final-ending which would mean you saw less of the whole film than I did? Maybe there is. Or maybe there isn’t — maybe the only way to that ending is trial and error through multiple permutations. Or maybe there are multiple “final” endings, and when you’ve exhausted what the film feels it has to offer it throws you the appropriate one. Such are the secrets of Bandersnatch, which Reddit users will surely reveal in time. They’ve already made a start, although a thorough-looking flowchart doing the rounds on Twitter has already been proven to be missing at least a few possibilities.

    However much time you choose to spend on it (Netflix say a thorough session would take two-and-a-half hours, although the BBFC certification reveals that there’s over five hours of footage required to make the whole thing function), Bandersnatch is a genuine experience, once again putting Netflix at the cutting edge crossroads of modern visual entertainment. Is it a film? A TV episode? A video game? All of those things? None of them — something else? Something new? Those who must experience such new things will need to try this out, of course — they probably already have. But it’s one for regular viewers, too, with a rewarding story to tell; one which could only have been adequately told with this newly-imagined technology. In my opinion, it’s a magnificent success, and a must-have experience.

    5 out of 5

    Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is available to watch/play/whatever on Netflix now.

    It placed 10th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    The Shape of Water (2017)

    2018 #256
    Guillermo del Toro | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English, American Sign Language & Russian | 15 / R

    The Shape of Water

    Oscar statue2018 Academy Awards
    13 nominations — 4 wins

    Won: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, Best Production Design.
    Nominated: Best Actress (Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

    I still can’t quite believe a creature-feature fantasy romance won Best Picture. It remains surreal to see a genre movie conquer the Oscars like that. Even The Lord of the Rings, for all its so-Fantasy-it-defined-the-genre-ness, has a lot of the “historical war epic” in its form (not to mention the genre-transcending cultural impact that film trilogy had), and so its win seems less striking than this out-and-out monster movie. Naturally, The Shape of Water doesn’t actually conform to the commonly-understood connotations of what a “monster movie” is, and therein lies what makes it something fresh, and therefore Best Picture material.

    In fact, even “Fantasy” isn’t quite the right term for The Shape of Water — “fairy tale” is nearer the mark. It begins with voiceover narration talking about a princess as the camera glides underwater into a room where everything is afloat, including a sleeping woman… until everything gradually settles to the floor, an alarm goes off, and she wakes up — and now it’s just a real room. Except, even then, it’s not really real — it’s storybook-real; movie-real. Almost literally, in the sense that her apartment is above an old-fashioned movie palace. It’s a gorgeously designed set, but it doesn’t feel like somewhere someone would actually live — but it’s only just out of kilter, which is part of why it’s so fantastic. In case you missed it up top, the film also won an Oscar for production design, and that was certainly deserved.

    Dreaming

    Anyway, the woman in question is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), whose reality could hardly be more distant from that of a fairytale princess: she’s working nights as a cleaner at a government facility, wiping up the splattered piss of “clever men”. She’s also mute, communicating via sign language to her friends, coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and down-on-his-luck neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). Things change when a mysterious new project arrives at the facility. Well, it’s no surprise to say that turns out to be a… kind of… merman… human/fish… being… It’s accompanied by head of security Strickland (Michael Shannon), who hates its guts and desires nothing more than to inflict pain, and scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is more sympathetic, for his own reasons. But it’s Elisa who, almost accidentally, comes to bond and communicate with the creature, in secret; but as their connection grows, she realises something must be done about its predicament.

    I’ve read some reviews that berate Shape of Water for its straightforward storyline — I’ve described a fair chunk of the plot just getting to that point of conflict, and you can probably infer much of the rest. But I think such criticisms miss the point. For one thing, it is not fiction’s only goal to shock us with plot twists. There’s more to storytelling than just surprises, and Shape of Water certainly has more to it. For another, it is quite clearly a fairy tale — albeit an adult-minded one — and those go more-or-less one way. And even then, the events that I thought would form the film’s climax happen at the halfway point, so this viewer was at least somewhat surprised.

    Toxic masculinity

    So what is there instead? Characters, for one. We don’t get too much backstory on any of them — which is interesting, because apparently del Toro wrote lengthy summaries for the main characters, some running to 40 pages, which were provided to the actors to read and use if they wanted. Whether they embraced them or not, they are all well-judged performances. Hawkins, Spencer, and Jenkins got the nomination nods, but it would’ve been equally at home in the hands of Shannon or Stuhlbarg. And that’s not to mention Doug Jones, who conveys the creature’s emotions with physicality and movement alone — aided by superb prosthetic and CGI technicians, of course. But while the film’s primary focus is on the interspecies love tale he features in, each supporting character has their own subplot to help sketch their personality, and provide meaning and resonance to the main story.

    That’s where theme comes into it — intricately linked to the characters, because this is all about outsiders and otherness. The fish-man is the most obvious “other”, with Elisa positioned second (as alluded to earlier, she seems to only have two or three friends and acquaintances she can actually communicate with); but there’s also Zelda, a black woman, and Giles, a gay man — and this is ’60s America, making those statuses even ‘lower’. Plus there’s Dr. Hoffstetler, but that would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, his unique predicament is given a more nuanced portrayal than you’d normally find in American media. All of this exists in counterpoint to Strickland, who’s basically the physical embodiment of toxic masculinity. For a film set in the ’60s, with a lot of Cold War overtones — and in a Fantasy environment, with a supernatural romance at its core — The Shape of Water certainly has a lot of timely relevance.

    Something fishy goin' on

    But, while you can hold it up as a mirror to the here and now, it also has a timelessness — like all the great fairy tales, of course. It transcends its ’60s setting and its 2010s production to really be about values of humanity — of acceptance —that are always pertinent. By tucking these messages into a fantasy that is most assuredly aimed at adults (it practically contains a laundry list of “things not suitable for children”), del Toro has given depth and meaning to an outlandish movie that, yeah, fundamentally, as the jokes all go, is about a woman fucking a fish.

    5 out of 5

    The Shape of Water is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming (1970)

    aka Una nuvola di polvere… un grido di morte… arriva Sartana

    2018 #253
    Giuliano Carnimeo* | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy & Spain / English | 15

    Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming

    Unlike the Zatoichi films, where the English titles basically ignore the Japanese originals most of the time, the Sartana films come with English names that are pretty literal translations of the original Italian… except this one, whose original title translates as A Cloud of Dust… A Cry of Death… Sartana Arrives. Personally, I like that better — it’s more dramatic. Neither title particularly evokes the film itself, mind, which is notable as the final instalment in the official Sartana series.

    The film starts very well, with the opening 20 minutes devoted to an entertaining prison break situation: Sartana (the likably cocky Gianni Garko) gets himself thrown in jail on purpose, because another inmate has (somehow) called for his help. He’s been accused of murdering his business partner to pocket the loot from a deal-gone-sour, and now everyone wants to get their mitts on that money, including the corrupt sheriff that’s locked him up. So Sartana breaks him out, sends him into hiding, and sets about investigating what really went down.

    The plot seems relatively straightforward at first — it looks like it’ll be some kind of murder mystery, with Sartana cast as the detective. There are even multiple flashbacks to the night of the crime, with different accounts revealing different information for the detective to piece together — so far, so Agatha Christie. (Roberto Curti’s essay in the booklet accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray release boldly compares it to Rashomon, but that’s a bit generous — the flashbacks don’t really offer conflicting versions of events, but piece together a timeline from characters having turned up at different times.)

    Sartana locked up

    A whodunit offers a nice, clear structure: you interrogate all the suspects, you work out who did it. Make the confrontations shootouts instead of verbal sparring and you’ve got a Sartana movie… right? Sadly, no — it’s not long before the story devolves into the series’ usual double-cross-athon runaround. The initial clarity gives way to another massively over-complicated and sometimes unfollowable plot involving a large cast of characters, all of whom turn out to be involved somehow and eventually wind up dead. It feels a bit rinse-and-repeat at this point.

    Fortunately, the devil’s in the details — not the details of the plot, which, as I said, are baffling, but in the film itself. There are some amusing moments, like the guy who keeps claiming he’s the best shot in the West before being shown up by someone else, or a novelty wind-up cigarette lighter than Sartana finds some clever uses for. Then, for the finale, Sartana whips out his massive organ in the middle of the street to show off its hidden talents. By which I mean a church organ which, by some clever manipulation of the keys, turns out to be full of deadly tricks. The series has always had a penchant for gadgets and impossible displays of skill, but this is certainly the most cartoonish.

    Greed

    Arrow’s blurb for Light the Fuse says it’s “equal parts playful, violent, inventive and entertaining.” I don’t disagree those parts are present and of equal size, but their size is relatively small. They claim it “brings the series to a fine conclusion”; that it “sees Sartana sign off on a high [in] one of the best entries in the series”. I’d almost go so far as to say the opposite — it was one of my least favourite. There’s fun along the way, to be sure, but the plot borders on the meaningless and therefore becomes a tad boring. It’s not a bad film, as this series goes, but it certainly feels like a generic one.

    3 out of 5

    * Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^