Review Roundup - Annual Thing


Much like the previous horror movie review session this will be another series of write ups I just haven't had the time or energy to get around to until now. I guess it all feels more pressing suddenly, for one vague reason or another. So here let's take a look at a few big and small releases from the last twelve months (though Infinity War and Annihilation were already reviewed amongst various others). This won't be an exhaustive list by any means but it's nice to cover a few of most recent additions before I swing back around and start discussing more classic horror. In this part I'll be looking at a few of the best releases, or at least those I've seen so far.

Starting as we mean to go on let's look at the weird and disturbing revenge film Mandy, a story about Nicholas Cage fighting a cult and a biker gang who may or may not be demonic in nature. It's a slow burn story (until it's not) that often looks and sounds like a prog-rock album cover or the artwork from a fantasy novel. Music from band King Crimson and by the late great Jóhann Jóhannsson gives the whole thing an ethereal and nightmarish feeling as the screen bleeds red and live action transitions into bizarre cosmic visions and even a few traditionally animated scenes. This is a real mood movie that will turn a lot of viewers off, but for those who're into strange cinema this is a film that goes beyond the typical '80s nostalgia trends of late, pushing further and harder into trashy and violent territories.

The plot is very basic as Red (Cage) lives in the wilderness with Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). While he's away working for a logging company she sits reading and drawing fantasy art in between a job at a gas station. It's pretty mundane but their relationship is given enough time to develop without a lot of actual dialogue as they watch Don Dohler movies and talk about outer space. But as you might be expecting things go horribly wrong when Mandy is spotted by a bunch of weirdos driving by in a camper van. Weirdos that talk about summoning supernatural allies with 'the Horn of Abraxus'. All the stranger elements have a grounding in reality but the way all of this is presented suggests that Mandy's art and the sort of drug addled lifestyle the villains lead are bleeding together in Red's mind as the aesthetics of the movie get more and more bizarre.

The cult is called Children of the New Dawn and their comrades are called The Black Skulls... so you can see the kind of thing the director is going for, even if the actual story is just a basic revenge tale where the protagonist kills all the bad guys one after another. But it's also a film where he forges a battle axe to fight enemies that look like bikers mutated into something from Hellraiser. With all the references to music and art there's a sense that reality is collapsing. All of these characters are so broken or deranged that ordinary life seem to have been lost (or taken from them). In the case of Mandy her art feels genuine but in the case of cult leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache) it's certainly more ego than creativity as he forces music (about himself) on his followers, declaring that it's even better than The Carpenters...

It's a bleak and bloody story complete with yet more overwrought Nick Cage tirades, although in this case it does often feel completely appropriate to the atmosphere and tone of the movie. It might even be a great performance. The action even references things like Tiger on the Beat as it all spirals out of control in the third act. Purely as a horror film this will cater to a pretty specific audience and leave others scratching their heads, but it does deliver a pretty specific experience. There are flying heads, acid trips, drunken freak outs and a cameo from '80s action favourite Bill Duke. If this sounds like your cup of tea then sit yourself down and give in to the weirdness.


The darkness continues with You Were Never Really Here, the latest release from Lynne Ramsay. Like her work on We Need To Talk About Kevin this is a very unsettling film but it retains the signature sense of visual storytelling that made it so engrossing. A lot of the actual narrative is explained without dialogue or left to viewer interpretation as gun for hire Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) takes jobs through a shady organisation. From what is shown his work involves missing children who show up in very bleak situations and have to be rescued using rather gruelling methods. Joe is a methodical guy who plans out his work using specific tools such as electrical tape and claw hammers, and he's got a pretty twisted backstory driving his actions.

This is more of a character movie than a straightforward thriller as it becomes clear that not only has Joe suffered as a young boy, but that his past working in the military or in law enforcement has also left a few scars. In this case the dream like mood of the story feeds into a kind of memory loop which gives us glimpses of trauma in a way that makes him feel like a real person, rather than just a trite lunatic with a bad childhood. A lot of the details are never fully explained and it's refreshing to see a story where the viewer is allowed to fill in the blanks. There are no dry expository speeches or sudden reveals that tie everything in a nice bow, the man is a mess and his life is in chaos.

The only grounding keeping Joe together is his home life with his mother (Judith Roberts) who is also a troubled individual. They have a kind of comforting but frustrating existence together which lends the story some much needed human warmth and humour, but it's never overtly funny. In a way it highlights how past problems have fostered their son and mother dependency - she's stuck in her ways and he has never really grown up. Again the specifics of their home life is only hinted at but there's a certain kind of realism to the whole situation which is fascinating to watch unfold. Like Mandy there's a lot of tragedy and a lot of surreal moments, but they're tonally worlds apart and work for very different reasons.

The main storyline involving wealthy conspirators and missing girl Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) is pretty harrowing to say the least as Joe finds out his employer and their clients cannot be trusted. But the way the story is told with sudden flashbacks, monochrome security footage and gliding camera movements is always completely engrossing. The sudden action beats and shocks of violence almost tip the story into simple genre movie territory, but the execution and the final outcome make this more than the sum of its parts. There's a tinge of sadness to the whole thing which mixes child like sensibilities and a sparks of brutality to create a fascinating character study, and the result is one of the best films of the year.


Onto something a bit lighter, let's also look at Mission: Impossible - Fallout which is firmly planted in its action genre roots. Well if you can call a story about spies murdering each other and madmen trying to set off nuclear weapons light hearted. At least these are familiar thriller tropes with some comforting good guys shooting bad guys set pieces. Perhaps too familiar... since this plot feels like the same one that they did in the previous two movies. But it also feels like a conclusion to the transition in tone which started with Ghost Protocol and became darker with Rogue Nation. The evolution is complete and everything is much greyer and much grittier than before. The car chases feel sharper and the fight scenes are harsher.

A lot of the action is strangely reminiscent of older films which is nice to see and there are moments that feel like callbacks to '90s efforts like True Lies, Ronin and even Cliffhanger. I guess their intentions were always to bring back practical effects and real stunt sequences but it's still interesting to see what sort of past spectacles are being referenced. The HALO jump sequence feels unnecessarily complicated with visual effects adding storm clouds, and a helicopter crash in the finale seems a little much if they're trying to keep everything grounded... but the rest is all pretty solid stuff. Series fans will debate if these set pieces are better than what came before, but it's at least equal to earlier instalments in terms of motorcycles, gadgets and vertigo inducing obstacles.

The pacing is all pretty much spot on, probably thanks to the film makers knowing when to say they've got enough spectacle. At least two action moments from the trailers are missing, but the result is a tightly wound movie that never comes across as unwieldy or bloated. They might use the same rubber mask wearing twist moment once too often but at least there's an element of the unpredictable in a story everyone knows will end a certain way. The big change here is that it feels like a more dour spy thriller than the earlier espionage jaunts, in particular the one directed by Brad Bird. As a result Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg feel a little out of place, often looking a bit tired and worn out instead of being on hand to offer wry banter as before.

It's not a negative but it is a change that lends the story a different feeling than the others, which is probably necessary to keep things fresh with so many familiar moments. There are more ticking clocks and threats of nuclear annihilation, and Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt is still a one note character even if they try and give him more to do when he's inevitably going rogue. But even when they suggest he's really gone bad this time and bring back his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) to raise the stakes... there's always a safe bet this will all turn out just fine in the end. Still, as I said last time around for a sequel this late in a franchise to be amongst the best entries is impressive, and this hasn't changed.


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