Saturday, September 22, 2018

THE REVENGE FILM “MANDY” MIXES GRINDHOUSE, ARTHOUSE AND FUNHOUSE

Nicolas Cage in MANDY.
The new horror/thriller MANDY is perhaps the most artistic B-movie ever made. Director Panos Cosmatos has given it an exquisite sense of craft, the kind usually reserved for A-list fare. MANDY may have buckets of blood, outrageous violence, and a Nicolas Cage baying at the moon, but damn, if it isn't gorgeous.  

The film's plot is fairly standard revenge fare. Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) is a humble lumberjack who's driven to vengeance after seeing his wife murdered by the crazies in a religious cult. It really just needed to be mean and violent and it would've satisfied the bloodlust of audiences who go in for this sort of thing. Yet, Cosmatos clearly wanted this one to be much, much more. This is grindhouse meets arthouse. 

Andrea Riseborough in MANDY.
Cosmatos, son of TOMBSTONE director George P. Cosmatos, fills every frame with gorgeous imagery and loves to show off his lens gels, morphing edits, and detailed compositions. Indeed, much of what he puts up on screen is memorable. A body writhes in poetic slow motion as it is burned alive in a suspended sack. Red's animated visions are haunting cartoons, like something out of 1981's animated feature HEAVY METAL. And when a church burns down, its destruction is utterly resplendent. 

Linus Roache in MANDY.
The director certainly makes every image count, although his work as an actor's director is more of a mixed bag. Cage is an actor who can chew the scenery like a starving dog and Cosmatos lets him chomp away. On the other hand, the director manages to get subtler work out of costars Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roache. There's also a terrific Bill Duke monologue late in the game that makes one wish he showed up in more features. 

Why all of them chose to do this film is anybody's guess, but at least Roache gets to play something miles away from the dignified suits he usually plays in movies and TV. Here, he's the villain, the cretinous cult leader Jeremiah Sand, and Roache revels it cutting loose. He's one part Brian Wilson, one part Charles Manson, both California sunny and demonically dark in the part.


Riseborough plays her part of Mandy more enigmatically. This odd, aging flower child is hard to pin down. She's sweet and loving towards Red, but quirky and stand-offish with others in the story. When Sand sees her walking along the road, he falls in love with the girl, even though she transmits a creepy Susan Atkins vibe. He has his minions kidnap her in the middle of the night to be his sexual slave, but she's not easily moved by his charms. When he dances naked in front of her in an attempt at seduction, she howls viciously at him. 


Sand punishes Mandy for her rejection in that burning bag, and even forces Red to watch. It drives him over the edge, and sadly, the film goes right along with it. After that, the film starts to become more and more silly, with Cage dominating the action with his hokey overacting. And no matter how beautiful Cosmatos makes it all, the film essentially turns into a parody with cuckoo dialogue and overwrought fight scenes. At one point, Red cuts a bad guy's throat and the blood gushes out all over Cage's face like it's a college plebe projectile vomiting. And it goes on for so long, you can't help but cackle. Now, the grindhouse/arthouse has become a carnival funhouse. 

Cage keeps adding to the humor. He paces, grimaces, pouts, yells, sobs...all dialed up to an 11. The scene where he binges a bottle of vodka in the bathroom has to be seen to be believed. The Oscar-winning actor courts serious Golden Raspberry consideration with his overwrought froth in this film. You half expect him to turn into one of the literal cartoons Cosmatos utilizes, but I guess a human caricature is close enough. 

Does trash like MANDY deserve all of the arthouse window-dressing applied to it? No, not if it's going to become a joke with a third of the film left. Its rich imagery may help it stand out in the cinema landscape, but such application is way too artsy-fartsy for what's going on here. At one point, while being stabbed in the chest, Red bellows at his tormentor, "Hey! That's my favorite shirt!!" With lines like that making it into the final edit, I'd hate to see what was left on the cutting room floor.

Let's just hope that for his next project, Cosmatos finds a worthier script for him to apply his considerable talents to. He may have polished MANDY to a high sheen, but no matter how bright and shimmering it may be, the thing is still a turd.

Friday, September 21, 2018

"LIZZIE" PAINTS A COMPELLING #MeToo PORTRAIT OF LIZZIE BORDEN IN 1892


The new period thriller LIZZIE is a fresh retelling of the infamous Lizzie Borden murder case and it benefits enormously from the timing of its release. The 1892 story about two women - Lizzie and the family maid Bridget Sullivan – being treated horribly by the male hierarchy and their ultimate revenge against it, can be seen anew through the lens of the contemporary #MeToo Movement. Additionally, the film’s opening date is in the week all the news broke about Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. Clearly, the fight for the right to be heard and treated fairly remains the same for women, be it today or 126 years ago.

Telling Lizzie’s story has been a passion project of actress Chloe Sevigny for years. She famously posted pics online after visiting the Borden house, now a tourist attraction in Fall River, Massachusetts, and has talked to the press repeatedly about the subject. Sevigny is the star here playing the title role and one of the main producers as well. She hired her friend Bryce Kass to pen the script and worked hand-in-hand with director Craig William Macneill to bring this to the big screen. Her efforts were not for naught as LIZZIE is a not only a taut nail-biter but a vivid character study showcasing the actress’ best screen work to date. 

The film wisely doesn’t overplay the luridness of the murders. (They’re gross enough even in concept.) Instead, the movie focuses on the motives that were behind those crimes. The bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden (Jamey Sheridan and Fiona Shaw) were discovered the morning of August 4, 1892, heads stove in by repeated ax blows. It looked to be the work of a madman, but the 90-minute downtime between killings as determined by the coroner’s report, pointed to the murderer being someone in the house. The only two there at the time were Lizzie (Sevigny) and Bridget (Kristen Stewart). Further implicating Lizzie was her well-known hatred of her father and stepmother throughout the community. 


Many others hated Andrew too, as he was a ruthless and corrupt businessman who ruled over all with an iron fist, but Lizzie was quickly became the prime suspect. She despised the fact that her father was a cheap S.O.B., one who forced his clan to penny-pinch at every turn even though they were one of the richest families in the state. She also hated his control of her and his sexist nature. Thus, Lizzie acted out towards him often in ways that were ahead of her time. She not only challenged his command but would often steal money from his bureau as well. 

Unlike previous screen adaptations of the story, including the terrific TV-movie from 1975 starring Elizabeth Montgomery, and the not-so-terrific Lifetime movie starring Christina Ricci from 2014, Lizzie is presented here as a more rational and sympathetic character. Sevigny plays the put-upon women with a world-weary fatigue that’s palpable. She’s a woman sickened by the male hierarchy oppressing her at every turn. Her father is a smug bully, and her snide uncle John (Denis O’Hare) impugns her at every turn. These are the facts that drive the story, not those from the investigative work done by the police or the courtroom theatrics that came with Lizzie’s trial. The film is all about Lizzie’s oppression and her inevitable moves against it. 


Bridget was treated just as horribly by the men around her. She was not only called “Maggie”, a dismissive Irish cliché, by both Andrew and Abby, but she was overworked by them to the point of exhaustion. Criminologists believe that Bridget may have been repeatedly raped by Andrew too, as he was known for adultery and using women in such a way. Some of the scariest scenes in the film are when Andrew preys upon Bridget at night, his feet on the creaking floorboards announcing his monstrous visits. 

Throughout all of the pain dispensed to both Lizzie and Bridget throughout the story, the camera stays intensely close to the two actress’ faces. We see how every slur and infraction wounds them up close in raw, vivid close-ups. The two characters are often filmed at the edges of the frame too as if to suggest their utter marginalization. The only fragments of joy they experience are quiet bonding moments with each other and the camera lingers on their affections. In fact, only when the two characters are together, do they ever hold the center of the frame.  

Cinematographer Noah Greenberg frames the film to give it a more contemporary flavor too. His lens’ enhance the claustrophobic feel of the rooms in the house, virtually closing in on the two women from all sides. Even the grooming works to give the film modernity, like the removing of Andrew’s beard. In real life, the old man wore one akin to Lincoln’s, but here he is clean-shaven. Sheridan’s mug could pass for that of any self-satisfied CEO adorning the cover of Fortune magazine. 


The script is deft and brief with its dialogue, preferring to let the two actresses fill in most of their performances in between the lines. That works especially well for Stewart who proves once again to be one of our most physical of actresses. Her eyes convey pools of pain and disappointment in every scene, and she stands in continual conflict, her body hunched and looking down subserviently, yet leaning forward as if to run away. 

The scenes between Lizzie and Bridget are both sweet and sensual. Borden teaches her maid how to read, and they share secrets together in the shed out back. One morning, as Bridget buttons Lizzie into her elaborate clothing, the maid’s fingers all but caress her mistress. Soon after, their affection for each other turns them into lovers. Yet, even here, the film shows remarkable restraint, not lingering on where their hands go, but rather, on the emancipation in their faces. 

Of course, the scenes where Lizzie and Bridget finally exact their revenge plays like gangbusters. It is both shocking and cathartic, for their characters, as well as the audience. The movie’s single greatest shot might very well be the camera pan across Abby’s bedroom to discover Lizzie waiting in the corner, ax in hand, ready to strike. How Lizzie is ‘dressed’ makes it all the more incredible. 

The film does miss some elements worth exploring. Lizzie’s older sister Emma (Kim Dickens) barely registers here despite being a key ally of Lizzie’s in reality. Abby, despite the great Shaw playing her, also doesn’t come off as strong as she should. Lizzie’s changing story could have been shown to show her caginess and heighten her vulnerability even after her tormentors were gone. And ignoring the trial altogether hinders the film from showcasing some vivid theatrical moments, like when the prosecutor struck the skulls with an ax in front of the jury and made the press go wild. Still, there’s plenty here to keep the audience enthralled.

In the end, LIZZIE doesn’t quite exonerate the two women, but it certainly creates more than enough sympathy and empathy for both of them. The film clearly suggests that if Lizzie Borden’s revenge was indeed murder, her striking back was a way of leveling the playing field. She stopped those who were slowly but surely killing her. For her persecutors, it was clearly #TimesUp.

Friday, September 14, 2018

VILLAINY LOOKS GOOD ON BLAKE LIVELY IN THE NEW THRILLER "A SIMPLE FAVOR"

Original caricature by Jeff York of Blake Lively in A SIMPLE FAVOR. (copyright 2018)
Back in the 90's, Jeremy Irons stopped trying to be a leading man and became a much more interesting actor by essaying villainy. Hugh Grant may have just reached a career zenith this year by playing two bad guys - one in PADDINGTON 2, the other in BBC One’s A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL. Now, Blake Lively gives her best screen performance to date in A SIMPLE FAVOR by shaking off her California girl heroine cloak. She makes for one delicious scoundrel and elevates the uneven film every time she's on screen.

Lively is just that, as a matter of fact, full of brio in her performance as Emily Nelson, the vixen at the center of A SIMPLE FAVOR. Emily’s a Hitchcockian blonde in this potboiler that owes a lot to the Master of Suspense, not to mention Gillian Flynn and Agatha Christie. She’s brash, profane, a real man-eater; the kind of character that only exists in the movies. Emily throws back martinis, invites men to a have sex in public restrooms, and takes the piss out of anyone who gets in her way. It’s a tall order to play such a femme fatale, but Lively eschews all of her ‘girl next door’ aesthetic to completely fill the part. Even her fashionista wardrobe, one of the most memorable collections ever worn by an actress onscreen, can't overpower Lively’s brazen turn. Hers is one of the year’s best performances, and if there’s a God, should garner her a Best Supporting Actress nomination come Oscar time. 

In the story, Emily rules over her domain. She's a high-powered PR whiz for a fashion house, as well as one-half of a gorgeous power couple. Henry Golding, fresh off of his success in CRAZY RICH ASIANS, plays Sean Townsend, her famed author of a husband. They live in a home straight out of Architectural Digest and still ignite sexual electricity whenever they’re in a room together. Emily appears to have it all, but her husband’s written out, their lavish lifestyle is causing debt, and she’s not particularly good at mothering. When Emily shows up at school in the pouring rain to pick up her son Nicky (Ian Ho), she’s in four-inch heels and a customized suit that says, “Don’t touch.”. Her style and blunt demeanor both attract and repel super mom Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick). Her son Miles (Joshua Satine) is Nicky’s best friend, and it forces her to deal with Emily.

Stephanie lives up to her last name as she’s a textbook case of the overbearing, ingratiating, do-it-all single mom. (Imagine Martha Stewart and Mr. Rogers had a love child.) The other mothers despise her perky manner, not to mention her weekly "mommy vlog" where she tells viewers exactly how to parent. Emily finds her a curiosity and invites her to her lush pad for drinks in the middle of the afternoon. 

They end up hitting it off, and soon the two are sharing all sorts of gossip and secrets. Emily brags of a recent threesome, and she cajoles Stephanie into confessing that she had sex with her stepbrother after her father’s funeral. Theirs is a strange friendship, one where Emily affectionately calls Stephanie, “Brother F**ker.”


Soon, Stephanie is thick as thieves with Emily, becoming a fixture in her life and home. But then, Emily disappears, and it turns everyone’s world upside down. Updates of her disappearance become a regular feature of Stephanie’s vlog, and she spends more time playing “Nancy Drew” as she tries to discover what happened to her new BFF. Suffice it to say, what Steph discovers about Emily is quite unsavory, but to tell more would be to give away too many of the outrageous twists and turns awaiting the second half of the story. 

Outrageous is indeed the word to describe A SIMPLE FAVOR as the longer it goes on, the more over-the-top it sails, to the point of becoming not only a dark comedy but almost, a satire of sexy thrillers from the 80’s and 90’s. (You can see the heavy influences of films like BODY HEAT and BASIC INSTINCT throughout.) Sure, the movie starts out playing Jean Paul Keller’s bombastic French take on “Music to Watch Girls By” over the frenetic credits, and Kendrick’s performance is pitched a number of notches above her neurotic comedy on display in the PITCH PERFECT trilogy, but there’s a seriousness to the film that supersedes it. 

But as the mystery deepens, much of the comedy becomes too strong. Director Paul Feig comes from that world, and Jessica Sharzer’s script, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, certainly pokes acidic fun at the suburbs, the fashion world, and even rubes in ‘burgs who always figure in the hidden pasts of guilty parties, but they let this pulp overcook.

There are a ton of farcical laughs, some that really have no place in a movie with disturbing themes of drug addiction, patricide, and arson. At one point, a character is hit by a speeding car, and it’s shot virtually in the same way that Regina George got plowed over by the bus in the comedy MEAN GIRLS. It seems ludicrous here. The tonal shifts are head-scratchers, as is the ever-increasing series of flamboyant twists and turns in the plotting. It’s fun, but some discretion would’ve served it all better.

The story of someone like Emily should disturb. The film starts to explore her sociopathic psyche and could’ve showcased how her deceit truly ruins all that she touches. Lively stays committed to that portrayal, even when the film starts to undermine her in the last 30 minutes. If only Feig had dialed it all down, keeping Kendrick’s mannerisms in check and pulling back on too many kitschy selections on the soundtrack. Then his film might’ve been a classic in the genre. Instead, it’s a bauble of a movie, just dark enough to be edgy, just frivolous enough to be weightless. But at least he’s got that marvelous performance from Lively anchoring it all. Her character is outrageous enough, it’s too bad the film felt the need to match her.