2 (out of 4)
Gregory Plotkin's initial directorial effort was the final Paranormal Activity film subtitled The Ghost Dimension and he served as editor for every sequel in the series. Apart from stitching together found footage flicks to diminishing returns he's also lent his scissored hands to more impressive Blumhouse treats like Happy Death Day and Get Out. Plotkin’s debut proper is Hell Fest, which, while far from torturous, doesn't instigate much in the way of diabolical jubilation.
The premise of a murderer walking amongst the make-up, stilts, strobe lights, fog machines and tricked out mazes of a haunted theme park is so obvious you wonder how it possibly couldn't have been conceived before. The idea is promising and the visual realization is respectable, but Hell Fest is so deficient in character and imagination that there's only a moment here and there that doesn't smack of a timeworn formula. Plotkin has a knack for keeping things spruce and practical – his direction is not without instances that impress. It's just that Hell Fest is so damn conventional that it's only tolerable based on the most paltry of pleasures i.e. watching inebriated, lascivious teenagers get what's coming to them from a patient, predatory stalker.
There’s never been many classics spawned from the basic slasher setup outside of the original Halloween, and a knockoff masked madman with no backstory or identity whatsoever is no evidence to the contrary. Maybe this film's psychopath gets upset if young girls don't think he’s scary? The motives are superfluous despite an ending that probably sounded slick on paper. Plotkin apparently hoped to transmute a very doctored story and script – devised by no less than six writers – into a reincarnation of splatter movies' old-fashioned customs. With an ominous and ornate carnival setting and believably stupid 20-somethings, Hell Fest nonetheless comes off as stock, stale and routine rather than a deftly straightforward preservation of a horror tradition.
Though I'm keen to laud realistically vapid dialogue from college-aged kids, there's not a distinctive individual in the bunch. With no one worth following into the infernal revelry and barbarity, Hell Fest isn’t eerie, horrific or even cheesy – the only amusement comes from the secondhand thrills of our leads navigating the grandiose Halloween festival, which is more fun before they become the prey of a serial killer.
If actual haunted hay rides or a similar night out is your cup of tea in October, it's bound to be scarier if you experience the real fakery. Hell Fest is only good for killing time before you start watching good horror – classic or cult films I hope, as Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria remake is the only encouraging sight on the horizon.
2 ½ (out of 4)
Paul Feig has next to nothing to live up to. The creation of Freaks and Geeks and a few episodes of The Office notwithstanding his output has been primarily characterized by nauseating Judd Apatow-tier improvisational farces. In offering women in Hollywood and ladies in the audience mainstream alternatives in film, the Ghostbusters remake, The Heat and even the overprized Bridesmaids hardly count as reasonable substitutes for exemplary comedies.
A diversion from the rubbish defining his career of late, A Simple Favor is a nimbly scripted respite, a gaily relaxing guessing game that succeeds almost entirely by virtue of Anna Kendrick’s instinctively emphatic talents. The story itself, quickly adapted from Darcey Bell's 2017 debut novel of the same name, is the sort of paperback fluff sure to rest on an upper class mother's coffee table – that is, loaded with sex, murder and overreaching intrigue. But before it tries to get cutesy clever in the predictable climax the film is actually pleasantly intriguing.
However, A Simple Favor operates better as a digestible mystery than as a black comedy, feminine thriller or as social commentary – if there wasn’t so much soap opera machination, Favor would be a real chore or just wouldn't have demanded to be made in the first place. Feig's film thrives mostly on account of the casting but at least the dialogue is decently droll and the plotting is expeditious.
While the roles of both Kendrick and Blake Lively are perfectly suited for their strengths, Lively can’t help but play a subsidiary part next to Kendrick’s alluring acting acumen. No part of her character's transformation from bashful, mommy-blogging widower to chic crime-solver feels as far-fetched as everything surrounding her. Kendrick's dainty docility is adroitly exercised while the script also grants the Oscar-nominated actress an excuse to flaunt her ample range.
A Simple Favor brings a brand new definition to the word convoluted in a sinuous story still comfortable enough to get wrapped in, even aside from Kendrick's distinct magnetism. The real solid that Feig did for all of us was any movie without Melissa McCarthy.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Panos Cosmatos first film Beyond the Black Rainbow was a distinguished failure – a visually consummate and narratively superficial sci-fi exercise born of relentless ambition regardless. Eight years later he returns to augment everything he experimented with in his debut. Mandy is a midnight movie masterstroke, undeniably and efficaciously psychedelic and superbly exhilarating.
Beginning with Cosmatos' familiar deliberation and obsessive ponderousness, Mandy unfurls into one of the most balls-crazy revenge flicks ever sincerely committed to celluloid. And despite verging into pure schlock and awe by midway, the direction never falters from painstaking craftsmanship. The most ludicrous moments of frivolous gore or an unCaged Nicolas doing his thing handily harmonize with a world of bad acid, mutated bikers, psycho cults and extra large chainsaws.
Riding right between cogent dignity and his illustrious insanity primed for compilation videos, Cage is cruising in top form. He hasn’t been put to use this appropriately since Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and his remarkable work as Red Miller stands with his most indelible turns. Ripped from his idyllic, isolated home in the woods with his titular girlfriend – an excellent Andrea Riseborough as a sympathetic, artistic metalhead – by strung out hippie freaks christened the Children of the New Dawn led by megalomaniac Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache as a vainglorious deceiver), Red takes up a blood-drenched crusade following Mandy's cruel death.
In the realm of visual filmmaking, Cosmatos' exploits are sensational, meticulous, resplendent – in short grainy, burnished perfection. Fueled by LSD and cocaine, the film's spiritual journey of vindication develops with an erratic, sublime beauty – Mandy is trippy as all hell. Although not exceedingly substantial in thematic or emotional composition, its outrageous pleasures in atmosphere alone aren’t exercised as ostentatiously as in BtBR.
This is an uncompromising cult film that basks in the pastiche and precedence of B-movie slashers and action flicks. As storytelling its the furthest thing from high art yet as audiovisual design (one of the late Johann Jóhannsson's final scores is an ideally ethereal counterpart) Mandy is transcendent. A meditative first act juxtaposes Mandy and Red's pastoral life with the New Dawn's delusional misgivings before the real title card finally appears an hour in. From there the kaleidoscopic medley shifts to deeply gratifying absurdity.
As with Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cosmatos style comes long before substance. Yet his restless fastidiousness would make Nicolas Winding Refn seethe with jealousy and the gonzo, perversely surreal results speak for themselves. Offering moments that provoke, mystify, hypnotize and take your brain cells down a path few filmmakers dare to even glance at, Mandy is a mad modern milestone and the best film of the year so far.
To keep it brief...
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