Mandy (2018): A Heavy Metal Revenge Fantasy

    “Mandy” is a psychedelic trip that I highly recommend. The story is simple, but so much of what makes it work is your time where you can just sit with the world and the visuals. This is a film that could have been a silent film and worked just as well given how clear each of the actions of the characters are and how it uses visuals to tell story and given depth. The film is done like a fantasy book too with each part broken into chapters. I want to see more Panos Cosmatos films after this as if he is this out there with his other stuff I’ll be in for quite an experience of cinema.

The story follows Red (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) who live in the forest away from the world. Mandy is a painter and works at the nearby store while Red is a lumberjack. There world of isolation and peace quickly turns to horror when a cult leader named Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) sets his LSD drug ridden cult on the two so he can have Mandy and make her one of his brides.

Spoilers ahead

The Pros:

The Action – The action is brutal and fits with the feel of the film of a Heavy Metal album come to life. Nicolas Cage’s Red makes his own axe to take on the bikers and the cult and systematically takes them on one by one to get to the Cult Leader Jeremiah and get his revenge for the death of Mandy. The film is really slow and reflective until it isn’t and that is when the action doesn’t let up as we go with Cage’s Red to the dark recesses of his mind where the only reason to live is vengeance.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is stunning. Scenes are draped in black and reds giving it the feel of album artwork or one of Mandy’s dark fantasy paintings. Sequences feel like dreams and it is worth the slow scenes just so you can soak it all in. The soundtrack magnifies the visuals and it plays together like an album brought to life. Benjamin Loeb truly did a fantastic job. This is easily the most visually unique film I’ve watched all year.

Red and Mandy – The core relationship of the film works. Red and Mandy are two people away from the world facing their damage and PTSD together. We see moments of that love when Mandy opens up about her story and you see it in Red’s eyes that he has done the same on multiple occasions. They only have eyes for one another and it makes the tragedy of Mandy’s murder hurt all the more. You see why Red is full of rage afterwords and why he is willing to go so far to avenge her death. The actors do an amazing job and Nicolas Cage truly inhabits his role as Red. Mandy is a strong character too who nothing can phase. When she is drugged up by Jeremiah she pulls down his illusion and laughs in his face at just how pathetic he is. He may have caught them both, but they win even though she dies.

Okay:

The Cult – The cult is alright. Jeremiah Sand is a creep who has his followers addicted to drugs and thinks he is the best thing. His narcissism works. The problem was I didn’t understand why a bunch of Biker Dudes would follow and become demons for him. They are nearly supernatural in how they are presented and I didn’t get his control over them, especially as any skeptic like Mandy will just laugh in his face. They worked as an antagonist, but in hindsight I would have built them up more. They deserved to be a great threat, while I largely accepted them as working alright but not great.

The Cons:

Deeper Meaning – This is a simple revenge story. What would have made it make my Top 5 to end the year would have been seeking some deeper meaning. There is the potential for deeper meaning there, but I wanted it explored more. I wanted to see Red’s love for Mandy explored more deeply or the Cult Leader’s twisted love for himself or him feeling he didn’t have it. Love could have been expressed as the theme better, or revenge but we don’t get that. This film is still great, but what keeps it from crossing that line to perfection is that lack of clarity in a major theme. I wanted more story and motivation and the film wasn’t ready to give that.

This is a film that will not be everyone’s jam. The violence is extreme when the story gets around to it and it does start out very slow. You have to be invested in the music and visuals and care about Red and Mandy to truly love this film. Luckily all those things worked for me. This is a film that may need multiple viewings as there are a lot elements going on. If any of the things I’ve described above are your jam you should check out this surreal horror fantasy. If the competition wasn’t so steep this year it might have made my Top 5 of 2018. This has been a great year for film.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10. More story and the cult getting more development would have made it perfect.

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) – The Best Spider-Man Film

       Sony has made so many crappy films recently. “The Emoji Movie,” the past “Amazing Spider-Man” films just got worse over time and felt like commercials for franchise management. The clips I’ve watched of “Venom” haven’t helped that as the writing I witnessed was just awful so I really don’t want to spend money to even rent that film, it makes “Suicide Squad” look like a work of amazing art. So Sony doesn’t have a good track record with Spider-Man outside of the first 2 Raimi films and their co-operation with Disney with “Homecoming,” until this film. This is my favorite Spider-Man film and easily one of my favorite films of the year, and is likely to end up in my Top 5 Films of 2018.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman who was one of the writers along with Phil Lord. Phil Lord is the writer behind “The Lego Movie” and he brings that same fun and surprising level of depth here.

The story follows Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) who is a young kid in Brooklyn is bit by a radioactive spider in an abandoned ally and witnesses Peter Parker facing off against foes. He soon realizes there are many other Spider-Men and must deal with the consequences of their plans as well as coming to terms with becoming Spider-Man himself.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is on it. It taps into the core emotions of Miles and the other characters and when they reach their highs it soars, and when there is a threat you can feel the tension eating at your skull. Daniel Pemberton did an amazing job. This music explores the full spectrum of what it means to live and is energizing at so many moments in the film. The impact of scenes would not have been the same without the power of this music.

The Animation -They started work on this film back in 2014, and I can see why. “Into the Spider-Verse” combines multiple animation styles (anime for Peni Parker, black and white for Spider-Noir, WB Cartoon for Spider-Ham and real life inspired for Gwen, Peter B. Parker, Peter Parker and Miles) and never stops being beautiful. From the Particle Accelerator being activated and the colliding of multiple dimensions, with the creation of a near black hole at the finale, to a forest with golden leaves contrasted with the red of Peter and Miles and the White of Gwen…this team knew how to use color and styles to make a seamless masterpiece. This film better win best animated when the Oscars role around.

The Villains – This is a film with some well designed and sometimes extremely compelling villains. I’ll cover 3 of them here. There is Liz Octavius who works for Kingpin and invented the Particle Accelerator that brought all the Spider-Men out of their universe in the first place. She is the passionate mad scientist and I love how she is never afraid of Kingpin even when we know he will kill anyone for failure.

Kingpin is the main baddie and his motivation is to bring back his wife Vanessa and their son as they died in a crash when he as about to kill Spider-Man years ago. You get his motivation as he is a man full of guilt who is ready to risk everything for another chance with the people he loves. This is no Netflix’s “Daredevil” Kingpin but he serves his purpose well. I wanted to see more of who he was and know more about his past, so he succeeded at keeping me interested.

Prowler is the best of the villains. Prowler we learn is Miles’s Uncle who has been supporting his art and is in deep with owing his life to the Kingpin. We see the threat of who he is as he helps Kingpin kill the original Peter Parker, but also his empathy as when he is given the choice to kill Miles, he saves him and admits he admires the person Miles is becoming. In the books Prowler is a black-mailing, gas-lighting bastard and inspires Miles to be better by how terrible he is. The complexity is still there, but I enjoyed this version so much more. Mahershala Ali is also one of my favorite actors and him voicing Prowler helped. I loved seeing his dynamic with Miles and that even though he was doing bad, he never stopped loving his nephew.

The Heroes – The heroes are easily the best part of this film and they do more in less time than Marvel’s MCU. Most of the characters of the MCU we love have had at least one film of development. These are character who don’t receive that but accomplish more, largely from the writing, acting and animation that is able to add a level of depth that is wholly unique to the film while still taking inspiration. If the Villains had been on this level chances are this film would be the best film of the year, they were great…but not as great as the heroes and I’m going to explore why.

Miles’s Parents are great in that his dad is a police officer who has so much suppressed masculinity he can’t talk to his own son and is showing him up early on until he is willing to open up after he is afraid he is going to what relationship he has.

Aunt May is the heart of the film as she is the one who is carrying on Peter Parker’s legacy after he is killed by Kingpin. She is the mentor figure for all the different Spider-People and can hold up her own. Lily Tomlin gives so much gravitas and empathy to the role. I loved every scene she was in as each time it revealed something more about whatever Spider-Person she was interacting with.

Peni, Spider-Ham and Spider-Noir are the support characters and play off the core leads of Gwen, Peter B. Parker and Miles really well. You have Peni who is the young sincere anime girl, Spider-Ham as the classic cartoon  pig who jokes but works with cartoon physics so is quite powerful and the grim and gritty Spider-Noir (voiced by Nicolas Cage) who is the edgy private eye who spends his time fighting Nazis in his universe. The way they play off the villains the heroes is a lot of fun and I’d watch films from all of their universes. Spider-Noir I especially found intriguing.

Gwen Stacey / Spider-Woman is one of the core leads of the film as she is one of Miles’s teachers and saves him and Peter B. Parker after they steal from Kingpin in order to stop his plan. I’ve read the first “Spider-Gwen” comic and I like the world. The righting for Volume 0 isn’t the best but I’m willing to read on because I love the character, the art and the world. This version is not quite that Gwen Stacey (this one dances) but takes inspiration from it, just as Miles takes inspiration from the “Ultimate” comics universe he was created in. She is a character alone until her friendships with the other Spider-People and seeing her open up is a really cool arc. Hailee Steinfeld is wonderful in the role. I hope they do some spin-offs in her universe as I think she is the best character in the movie outside of Miles Morales.

Peter B. Parker is from a world where Spider-Man’s personal life falls apart. In his world he buried Aunt May, he ends up getting divorced from Mary Jane and is wholly Spider-Man. He has no life outside the character so is a perpetual child. He takes up the mentor role when the machine pulls him into Miles’s world and it is from this he grows up, discovering that he even wants kids. His arc is really cool as he has a death wish for most of the film because of how miserable his life is and it is only through Miles showing him there is another way that he finds a reason to live again. Jake Johnson does a fantastic job in the role and gives the character a lot of depth.

Peter Parker is voiced by Chris Pine and exists in Miles Morales’s universe (like in the “Ultimate” comics). He rescues Miles but is killed by Kingpin before he can teach Miles how to be Spider-Man. It is a powerful death that you feel through the entire film. Mary Jane makes a speech on how Parker shows anyone can be Spider-Man and Stan Lee as a comic book owner says the same thing. This Spider-Man is very much the Parker from the comics but with inspiration from the Sam Raimi films and it is wonderful how they blend those elements together (Spider-Man has a flashback of him doing the dance from “Spider-Man 3”) and it is because this Peter is at the top of his game and still so young (having married Mary Jane pretty recently it seems) has his life together, only for Kingpin to take it all away. It is a tragedy that matters and he doesn’t come back. Death matters in this world and it means everyone we lose during the film is felt.

Miles Morales is the main character of the film and his arc is taking responsibility for the role that was thrust upon him. He is full of so much fear (new fancy school, new powers by accident) and that is a difficult path for him. What makes things complicated as well is his relationship with his dad, who is a cop who doesn’t let anyone close. It is only in the death of Prowler (when Prowler chooses not to kill Miles) that healing finally happens. Miles was always closest to his Uncle Aaron (Prowler) and his dad regrets the relationship he lost with his brother. This motivates both Miles and his dad to try and make a relationship happen. It is beautiful and organic and I can’t wait to see how things develop further. Miles is also the rookie out of all the Spider-People and none of them take him seriously except for Peter B. Parker so he has to not only prove that he can be a hero to himself, but to those already excelling in their roles as heroes. I loved how it was executed. Miles is one of my favorite characters and I highly recommend Bendis’s “Ultimate Spider-Man” run where Miles is introduced to anyone. This one has more heart than that run (Prowler is handled better) but both are amazing and if you loved Miles in this film, you will love him in the comics. Shameik Moore gives this character so much heart.

This was the perfect film and I hope it at least wins Best Animated Film at the Oscars. There is so much heart in all the characters who are each compelling, there is loss with the deaths our heroes experience and each action has consequences. This is a film that pays tribute to the creators (Ditko, Lee and Bendis) and truly shows that anyone can be a hero. If you enjoy great animation (seriously this is one of the most beautifully animated films I’ve ever watched) and amazing stories you owe it to yourself to see this film. Sony has put out a lot of crap and there hasn’t been a great Spider-Man film since “Spider-Man 2.” As a Spider-Man fan this was everything I could ever want in a film and I can’t wait to see it again.

Final Score: 10 / 10. Can’t wait to see what they do with the Spider-Verse in the future.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012): Enjoyable Crazy

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       This movie wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t really call it good. It was enjoyable though and there quite a few things I liked about it. For one Nicolas Cage does crazy really well and seeing him emote was a treat as he was acting like he had a dark spirit inside of him, which was his job. Most of my issues with this were that the villain and supporting cast, minus Idris Elba were pretty weak and I had no reason to care about them….which I blame partially on the acting and partially on the writing. But I’ll get more in that later on.

    “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” was directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, written by Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman and David S. Goyer, who also wrote the story. The film was produced by Steven Paul, Ashok Amritraj, Michael De Luca and Avi Arad.

      The story begins with The Ghost Rider/Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) recounting his story about the deal he made 8 years ago with the Devil Roarke (Ciaran Hinds) in order to save his Father which lead to him being inhabited by the Ghost Rider which feeds on the evil of others’ souls. Prior to this we see Moreau (Idris Elba) going to a Monestary that soon comes under attack as Roarke’s forces try to get Nadya (Violante Placido) and her son Danny (Fergus Riordan) who is connected to Roarke. When Moreau offers to help free Johnny Blaze from the Ghost Rider he fights to protect Nadya and Danny from Roarke and his forces as the endgame approaches.

The Pros: Nicolas Cage – I’m not going to say Johnny Blaze or Ghost Rider because I don’t know the characters well enough, but Cage is fantastic! He manages to be both crazy, strange and even empathetic at times. This is hard to pull off given how he’s written or just how Cage acts in general in his films but I really appreciated his performance here. I wish he’d honestly been given more to do besides be insane or sad, those were the only two emotions his character was allowed to feel, which got borrowing after a while, so point goes to Cage. We see his kindness when the Spirit of Vengeance is found at the end to heal Danny after Danny turns him back into the Rider after the Order had made him human again. So some decent acting range there, revenge to joy.

Nadya – Her character wasn’t bad and was enjoyable at times. She’d run with a bad crowd and made a deal with the Devil for her life, the price had been pregnancy and her child who she came to love, even knowing where he came from. Her character is really strong and we see her fight, even when outnumbered. Placido does a good job too.

Moreau – It’s Idris Elba, you can’t go wrong there. He does an amazing job as the drunk priest who lives life laughing. He’s great to see and when he realizes he’s betrayed he stands with Blaze against the order. His character is eventually killed by Roarke’s current Emissary Blackout, but not before Moreau headbutts him. Bad ass until the end. Elba elevates any role and this role could have been a waste if not for Elba.

Okay/Pro: The Cinematography – At times the cinematography was choppy but I really liked how the color scheme was like a comic book, including how they did Blackout’s Kill and some of the fight sequences. They were filmed like a comic book and it actually added something more to the film.

Okay: Blackout – The guy is just a creep, but when he becomes Blackout he has a cool kill affect at least. It is only him and the person he is decaying behind black, it really captures the nature of his power. Also to his credit he does defeat Moreau and put up a good fight against the Ghost Rider, which is more than can be said for Roarke.

The Cons: The Religious Orders – So many orders wasted, there is the one the beginning which gets killed by Blackout and we don’t even get to know them or their relationship to Nadya and Danny…there are the creepy ones with writing on their faces who want to kill Danny it turns out and we get none of their motivations, they are just creepy for the sake of creepy…also the Devil’s cultists who are mindless drones. All these orders are wasted and receive no development.

Danny – Danny likes Blaze because he isn’t as bad as the people his mom usually dates, that’s all we get for his relationship to Blaze besides them riding Blaze’s motorcycle. Wasn’t impressed with his development to Roarke his father or to Blaze…only relationship that felt real was the one with his mother and I don’t know if that’s the fault of the actor or the writing.

Roarke – Mephisto, the Devil, etc…what a wasted villain. The guy was never scary or threatening and for the deal maker he really made crappy deals. The Ghost Rider was so much more powerful than him he spelled his own doom in making that deal. Is the Devil really that stupid? Really wasn’t impressed, one of the worst villains in a Marvel film, and I’m including “Spider-man 3” and “Daredevil.”

    This movie was fun. I don’t think it’s as terrible as some people on Rotten Tomatoes make it out to be or as good as IGN thinks it is. For me it was enjoyable fun and a film I probably wouldn’t watch again unless it was with friends. I do hope we see the “Ghost Rider” come to the Marvel Cinematic Universe though, there is so much story potential that it would be a shame if he never arrives or is used again on screen. A spirit inhabiting a person that has it’s own agenda is a pretty cool idea, as is the Ghost Rider’s ability to turn any vehicle into a weapon of revenge.

Final Score: 7.3 / 10.