Callum Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2018: Day 1(-ish)

Getting a jumbled jump-start with Mandy.

Note: elements of this article also ran on Set the Tape (link).

One last ride, then.  Maybe.  We’ll see.  I’ve gone back and forth so much on whether or not I’m going to chuck writing in once the year is out that honestly the idea means nothing anymore and we’ll probably reconvene here again next year to do this all again.  But the fact remains, this could very well be the last time I do this.  I’ve been writing about movies online in a rather serious capacity for over 8 and a half years now – yes, I know the archives only go back to 2013, but I am not a record label desperately trying to claw extra cash out of gullible collectors’ pockets, so I won’t be dredging the earlier extra-terrible works back out of my personal archives for public consumption, thank you kindly – and I’m still in much the same position as when I started, save for finishing my education with a first-class Film Studies degree that would be more useful as a decorative placemat.  Rather than me moaning about my lot in life, though, I make this observation to note that I’m largely just tired and more aware than ever that I don’t have the fortitude, character, or talent to do this.  (To save me repeating myself, I went into more detail about my personal life and mental situations in the opening spiel of the latest What I’ve Been Watching, which you can go check out here.)

This marks my third sojourn to the London Film Festival, and the third listed outlet on my press badge in as many years albeit the correct (timely-posting) primary outlet for once, despite my expressed hesitation with returning after last year’s go-around.  In a way, I can’t help but feel like I’ve chosen to do so out of obligation since many of the reasons why I found my sophomore experience of the UK’s premier film festival disappointing are still present and accounted for – my personal mental state is an absolute wreck and has been for much of the year, I planned in advance for going so there’s more pressure on myself to enjoy it given how expensive doing this is, and I am still trying (and kind of failing) to distance myself from the “writer” tag in an attempt to get a foothold on moving on with my life.  But at least the films sound a lot better on paper this year which could go a long way towards mitigating apathy and fatigue, fingers crossed.  Plus, like the utter goddamn hack that I am, I cannot resist the perfect little bow that returning to the Festival can provide for my (*snorts*) “career” should I finally pull the plug, marking a trilogy of excursions spawned by the first time still being a personal high-point and at least being able to tell myself that I sort of fitted in here when the opportunity arose.

Still can’t take a pic without looking stoned, weirdly.

So, in the vein of film history’s most notorious trilogy-cappers, my 2018 London Film Festival experience has currently kicked off in a disorganised, dishevelled, shambolic mess.  Let me explain.  In previous years, my first day of coverage would have been the first official day of the Festival, the Opening Night Gala, because I couldn’t afford to get in earlier and attend the pre-Festival screenings that other more financially-stable or geographically-able members of the Press were able to do.  But way back in February, I bought myself tickets to see The Chemical Brothers at Alexandra Palace on the 5th of October because a) I figured that the Festival would hold to the tradition of its previous two years by running across the first two weeks of October, so I could roll seeing the Chems in with my duties at the Fest (had I decided to go), and b) IT’S THE FRIGGIN’ CHEMICAL BROTHERS ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!  Then the BFI announced the dates of the 62nd instalment of the Festival as being, well, the week after the gig.  So, I booked my non-refundable hotel and train tickets for the Chems and prepared to book my travel and accommodations for the Festival once I got my application approved and screening blocks were released…

Long story short: I completely cocked up my dates and have now travelled to, from, and back to London three times in the last three days.  I’m also now at the Festival for the last two days of pre-Festival screenings, hence the coverage starting early, and had to last-minute alter my departure days (plus wrangle a night at another completely different accommodation) due to a pair of major press screenings being added onto the last weekend (when I was initially scheduled to go home due to starting early) despite the dates initially claiming otherwise.  All of this was VERY EXPENSIVE and VERY STRESSFUL.  Anyone who tells you that I am a functional adult is lying.


Accidentally whistle-stop-touring for The Chemical Brothers, though, did at least let me get checked in early and catch a pre-Festival screening, Panos Cosmatos’ psychedelic action-horror hybrid Mandy (Grade: C+).  The most obvious and arguably accurate way to describe Cosmatos’ second feature is calling it the cinematic version of a late-70s/early-80s prog-rock/prog-metal album.  It’s not an unfair or wrong assessment, mind you, and one that, even after stripping away all the other aspects of the film that call to mind such an observation – the usage of doomsday cults, perversion of religious iconography, being super into spirituality and demons – Cosmatos clearly wants you to have in mind given that he kicks proceedings off with some King Crimson.  There are infrequent animated visions and title cards that, despite being done in today’s more angular digital animation, genuinely wouldn’t have looked out of place as the front covers of various half-forgotten vinyl that now go for hundreds on eBay or Discogs.  Jóhann Jóhannsson’s final brilliant score drones in tightly-arranged movements and dirges yet has a strange occasional beauty to itself.  The world of the film slowly but then gleefully untethers itself from reality and takes flight to a dream-like fantasy fit for macho pot-smokers getting baked listening to Led Zep’s descendants in 1984.

But as Mandy rolls on and starts picking up actual steam, the prog influence mostly dissipates in favour of amping up the film’s other main source of inspiration: schlocky, often-cheesy Video Nasty B-movies also from the early-to-mid 80s.  The film is positively drowning in mood-lighting assisted blood-reds and deep-blues.  There’s enough fog coating almost every scene that I think this movie single-handedly kept the fog machine industry going for a few additional months.  There are some genuinely creepy and perverted creature designs that are given the perfect sweet-spot of being hidden enough to avoid spotlighting any gaps in the practical effects but also shown clearly enough to properly unnerve the viewer – one has a spike for a penis that you’d better believe Cosmatos has his cinematographer (Benjamin Loeb working overtime) get some nice disturbing close-ups of it penetrating stuff with.

If a work of pop culture came before or after that specific 7 year stretch of time from 1977 to 1984, I don’t think Cosmatos has ever heard of it, let alone experienced it, such is his ultra-slavish devotion to remaking that era in time.  I can’t help but feel like I’ve done the movie wrong by watching it in the cinema on high-quality visual and audio equipment in the middle of the afternoon, instead of via a battered VHS in the dead of night on a tiny television in my messy cramped bedroom.  Cosmatos will gladly have the film stop dead in its tracks for random tangents of no narrative, thematic or even tonal significance if he thinks the idea is cool or fun enough – one pertaining to the world’s most bizarre mac-and-cheese ad caused my entire screening of jaded, seen-it-all critics and industry professionals to burst out in perplexed hysterics.  His dialogue (co-scripted by Aaron Stewart-Ahn) often hits exactly the nonsense depths of movies like Hard Ticket to Hawaii.  One scene has a tiger chilling in the background the whole time. Why?  Hell if I know; tiger doesn’t do anything or add anything to the scene, Nicholas Cage doesn’t fight it and it doesn’t kill anybody or come back after it’s set free.

Mandy is weird, basically.  It’s actually very simple at its core – an old-fashioned machismo-soaked revenge flick about two lovers, Red (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), being terrorised by a cult and also demons maybe – but the movie operates on this campy dream logic that you either vibe with or don’t.  When it got going in its second hour, I had a lot of fun of with it because I have a real soft spot for nonsense B-movies thanks to an adolescence spent watching episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and Cosmatos delivers big-time on the gore and the nonsense.  It also has Nic Cage delivering a go-for-broke performance that actually comes close to achieving sincere emotional depth at times.  A breakdown scene at the film’s midpoint called to mind Toni Collette’s similar soul-bearing expression of raw grief in Hereditary, although Cage is undercut somewhat by Cosmatos’ staging and costume choice seemingly precision-calculated to trigger guffaws in the kinds of people who are coming to this movie looking for the Memetic Cage that’s undeservedly shredded his reputation as an actor in recent years.

So, like the vast majority of prog music, I can appreciate the technical wizardry on display, I can occasionally find some genuine personal enjoyment, and I can definitely understand how Mandy would end up certain people’s new favourite film.  (This was made for midnight screenings at cult festivals the world over.)  But, like the vast majority of prog music, it largely did nothing for me, aside from a few base pleasures that are already beginning to subside.  For one thing, it’s inherited prog music’s refusal to get to the bloody point in any kind of decent hurry.  The film’s first hour is devoted to the lead up to the act that kicks off the revenge rampage and, whilst it has a few decently hypnotic scenes, there is absolutely no reason for this act to last an entire goddamned hour.  The sheer length of time and endless… slow… drawled… beat-filled… speeches reach for a profundity the film doesn’t actually have and certain stylistic beats, like dissolving Mandy and the cult leader’s faces into one another so that they’re basically inseparable, lose whatever coolness they had by Cosmatos going to the well with them way too many times.

On that note: there’s some criminal wasting of Andrea Riseborough going on here.  She’s here for one reason and one reason alone, despite that drawn-out first hour and Loeb doing a great job of filming her face, and her character is borderline non-existent outside of that fact.  Much like the rest of the film’s grasping attempts at having its carnage mean something beyond, I dunno, male impotency(?), it’s all supposition and inference standing in for anything concrete.  Which brings me to my most personal of criticisms: like a lot of prog-rock, it’s utter nonsense and I genuinely can’t tell how much of it is meant to be taken seriously and how much of it is aware that it’s very silly.  Because Mandy is very, very, very silly – you’ve likely already heard about the much-vaunted chainsaw duel, and it is just as gloriously stupid in reality as it sounds on paper.  But it moves at a glacier’s pace, lingers on scenes and beats for egregiously long stretches of time, and it’s coated in so much attempted symbolism that I can’t help but think there’s a deeper layer I’m either missing or finding drowned out by Carpenters gags, pithy one-liners, and the kind of overblown axe-forging montages you only ever saw in videos featured on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball segments.

I’ll say this much, I can guarantee that you and I will not see anything else like Mandy for the rest of this year, maybe the rest of this decade and possibly even the next.  It is a one-of-a-kind, leaving-everything-on-the-table work of a singular creative vision that will cut straight to the hearts of those attuned to its wavelength and pick up a deserved rabid cult following.  Everyone else will probably sit semi-appreciative and somewhat-bewildered by what is basically Archer‘s Kreiger painting another Rush album cover onto the side of his van.


Tomorrow: we begin our actual Festival coverage with the Orson Welles’ documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and the bizarre-sounding Sudanese war dramedy aKasha.

Callum Petch got himself a visa and started catching flights to where the grass is greener.

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