And now, the universe is back in order. I had difficulties recommending any of the films I saw in the past two weeks. This time, I will have no such problem.
Mandy by Panos Cosmatos (2018)
In a small settlement near the Shadow Mountains in 1983, Red Miller lives with his girlfriend, Mandy Bloom, in a cabin near a lake. Red works as a logger while Mandy is an aspiring artist who makes ends meet as a cashier. They live fairly reclusive lives with Red implicitly being a recovering alcoholic and Mandy telling him of her traumatic childhood experiences. One day, Mandy walks past a van owned by the Children of the New Dawn, a hippie cult led by one Jeremiah Sand. Struck by Mandy’s charm, he orders one of his displaces to kidnap her. Helping him are the Black Skulls, a demonic biker gang who feed off of human blood and a highly potent form of LSD. Red and Mandy have no idea of the grisly fate awaiting them.
Before Mandy, the most recently made film I saw starring Nicolas Cage was Knowing, which, even in a year containing rather stodgy material such as District 9 and Avatar, managed to stand out as the absolute worst thing I had seen in theaters in 2009. Sadly, it seemed to foreshadow his career in the 2010s, culminating in the abhorrent Left Behind.
Quick question: what do Left Behind and outlaw motorcycle club members have in common?
Anyway, the idea of seeing a good Nicolas Cage film naturally got me interested. Unfortunately, my quest to see Mandy was rudely interrupted by the film distributors’ favorite word of 2018.
Unlike Leave No Trace, it seemed as though the distributors had their bases covered. Not only did it see a limited release, even the distant theaters in my county known for screening obscure films weren’t showing it. Luckily, there was one avenue they had not accounted for: Video on Demand. Despite still being in some theaters, Mandy was placed on my providers’ on-demand list. With a means to watch it at last, I checked it out over the weekend.
After all the trouble I went through in order to see it, can I say it was worth the hassle? Well, to begin with, Mr. Cosmatos gave Mandy an artistic flair that makes it stand out from most films starring Nicolas Cage. It reminded me a lot of some of A24’s releases – namely Hereditary –in that the film takes its time before things get interesting. |Specifically, the title character is burned to death in front of Red’s eyes roughly one hour in. Red, in turn, decides to get revenge on the cult and the Black Skulls by hunting them down one-by-one.| However, though I was receiving similar vibes from Mandy, I have to say it is, by a significant margin, the superior effort to Hereditary.
One of the biggest reasons why Hereditary failed as badly as it did is because it was, at the end of the day, a B-movie that adamantly refused to believe it was a B-movie. No matter how seriously it took itself, audiences were treated to what amounted to a campy, if melancholic horror film with no self-awareness. Mandy, on the other hand, wholeheartedly embraces what it is, which is aided by Nicolas Cage’s excellent, if hammy performance as Red Miller. |This is a film in which he forges a battle axe, decapitates multiple people, has a chainsaw duel with a cultist, and crushes Sand’s skull with his bare hands, causing his eye to pop out of its socket. Even better, it avoids the trap Hereditary falls into by leaving things up for interpretation while also providing a solid foundation on which people can start formulating theories. That is to say, Mandy doesn’t have a devil worshipper to spontaneously appear and explain to the audience exactly what happened – everything you see speaks for itself.|
Whenever I’m judging the quality of an art film/game/rock album/whatever, I tend to rule against the ones that spend half (or more) of their run time insisting they’re not like those other works the mainstream unthinkingly laps up. What Mandy does is exactly what any of these artistically driven works should do: make a strong case for itself instead. As a result, it’s much more of a profound artistic statement than a majority of what A24 has produced over the years. Kind of like Brazil, I didn’t know where I was going to stand when I finished this film, but I’m really glad I gave it the time of day. If you have any chance of seeing it, seize that opportunity. Also, it opens with King Crimson – that by itself earns it a passing grade.
Persona by Ingmar Bergman (1966)
Elisabet Vogler is a successful, beloved stage actress. She shocked her coworkers one day when she suddenly went home early. The next day, she was found in her bed, refusing to move or speak. When transferred to a hospital, they determine her to be perfectly healthy – both physically and mentally. They posit that her state is the result of a lack of willpower than any illness. A young nurse named Alma reads Elisabet a letter from her husband containing a photo of their son, which the actress tears up. Feeling Elisabet would benefit from a more relaxed environment, the doctor allows the actress and Alma to stay in her summer home overlooking the sea.
Persona is a film I had been meaning to watch for the longest time. Watching the Three Colors trilogy back in March got me interested in checking out more art films. Naturally, when researching the subject, it didn’t take long for me happen upon the filmography of Ingmar Bergman. I had prepared myself to see Persona because a lot of critics consider it to be one of the best films ever made. In fact, Mr. Bergman himself considered Persona to be his best work alongside the later Cries and Whispers. For whatever reason, I went several months before I actually saw it. I think it’s possible, having been burned by other acclaimed art films such as Nostalghia and Marketa Lazarová, that I was hesitant to give Persona a chance.
Ultimately, I’m glad I did give it a chance because it’s a lot better than a majority of the art films I’ve seen as of late. While Nostalghia was impenetrable to the point of stereotypical pretentiousness and Marketa Lazarová jumped back and forth through time for no real reason, Persona avoids both trappings by giving its viewers a straightforward plot before going completely off the rails around the halfway point. In doing so, many of the various readings of what it’s about |– ranging from lesbianism, motherhood, to schizophrenia –| all come across as defensible analyses rather than the cinephile equivalent of ascribing paragraphs of meaning to a blank canvas. |I personally thought that the two characters were one in the same as I watched it.| It has an extremely small cast of five people with only one of its leads speaking regularly, yet it manages to accomplish a lot with its few moving parts.
If you’re at all interested in art films, Persona would be a good one to start with. It is unapologetic in how it refuses to explain what you just saw, but it’s because the director wanted to challenge his audience rather than talk down to them and show off how profound he is.
Tokyo Story by Yasujirō Ozu (1953)
Loosely based on the Leo McCarey film Make Way for Tomorrow, Tokyo Story is about a retired, aging couple, Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama. They live in the town of Onomichi in southwestern Japan with their daughter Kyōko, a primary school teacher. They have five adult children, though their middle son, Shōji, was declared missing in action and presumed dead when he fought in the Second World War. Their eldest son, Kōichi, is a pediatrician and their eldest daughter, Shige, runs a hairdressing salon. One day, the couple decides to travel across the country to Tokyo to visit their son, daughter, and widowed daughter-in-law.
Like Persona, Tokyo Story is one of those films I was interested in checking out for the longest time, yet never quite got around to seeing for some reason. By the time I finally did see it, I had already experienced two of Mr. Ozu’s other films – Floating Weeds and An Autumn Afternoon. Though both films are acclaimed in their own right, Tokyo Story is the one that usually makes any given cinephile’s “best of all time” list. Indeed, in a Sight & Sound poll consisting of film directors, Tokyo Story was voted the best film of all time. It’s to the point where if you’re getting into Japanese cinema, Tokyo Story will be one of the first films you learn about alongside Rashomon, Ugetsu, and Seven Samurai.
After finally watching it, I have to say the acclaim it has garnered over the years isn’t that much of an exaggeration. Tokyo Story paints a portrait of a dysfunctional family. The grandparents and their children have obviously grown distant from each other. Kōichi and Shige don’t have time to spend with their parents, leaving them alone at home and eventually sending them to a spa resort overlooking the sea just to get them out of the way. |Even Tomi’s death at the end does little to fix this; everyone leaves immediately after the funeral with Shige even attempting to claim her mother’s belongings.|
What makes this stand out from typical examples is that the family is dysfunctional, but in a very quiet fashion entirely devoid of any kind of melodrama. Most filmmakers, modern ones especially, would take this opportunity to have actors turn in hammy performances set to dramatic music. Mr. Ozu refrains from doing that; he was incredibly gifted when it came to capturing the essence of these mundane situations, successfully finding ways to make them fascinating to watch despite being so introverted. |Even the ending, which would be considered a downer by most standards, is rendered more bittersweet due to its realistic “life goes on” attitude. It allows the audience to feel their own emotions rather than having the director dictate how they should feel, and it’s an approach more creators should utilize.|
It’s a little ironic that it’s considered on an international scale to be one of the best films ever made because it stayed in Japan for nearly a decade. Despite successfully screening Rashomon at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, Japanese film exporters considered Mr. Ozu’s work “too Japanese” and therefore unmarketable. It wouldn’t be until the sixties that his work began screening abroad. I know 2018 hasn’t been a good year for film distributors, but it looks like they’ve always had, in one form or another, a shaky track record. It goes to show that it never pays in the long run to underestimate your audience.