alcoholism, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Amber Heard, anticipation, auteur theory, Cabin in the Woods, Chinese Democracy, cinema, documentaries, documentary, Film, Film auteurs, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, high school angst, horror films, hunters, isolation, Jonathan Levine, long-delayed films, man vs. nature, Movies, Siberia, slasher films, trappers, Trick 'r Treat, Werner Herzog
Since this past weekend was a long one, I intended to cram as many films into Sunday and Monday as possible. I didn’t break any personal records but I did manage to pack four pretty disparate films into each day. As such, I’ve decided to split up the days and give each entry a little room to breath. This blog post will deal with the first two films from Sunday, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. We’ll deal with the final two next time.
It’s often been said that you don’t really appreciate something until you have to wait for it. The anticipation leading up to that moment can, oftentimes, be even greater than whatever enjoyment you might have garnered from whatever it is you’re waiting for. What happens, however, when the wait stretches to ludicrous proportions? If you’re a music fan, you might get Chinese Democracy. If you’re a film fan, you might get Trick ‘r Treat. Or, conversely, you might get All the Boys Love Mandy.
Let me be clear: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with director Jonathan Levine’s long-delayed homage to classic slasher films. The film does an excellent job of establishing a retro tone and look, even though there are enough modern touches (iPhones, most notably) to remind us that this is still taking place in the here and now. The violence is brutal and unrelenting, hearkening back to the yesteryear of practical effects and noisy stabbings. One kill in particular, a nasty bit involving a knife across the eyes reminded me directly of early Friday the 13th films.
The acting is, across the board, pretty strong: I normally don’t feel any connection to the disposable teens in slasher films, but I connected with a few of these yahoos nonetheless. Even when they were exhibiting boorish, crude behavior, there was still a basic humanity to all of them that made the kills sting a little, regardless of the bro-ish nature of the victims. I thought Amber Heard was good in the title role but certainly not the embodiment of Helen of Troy that the story posits. She was cute, don’t get me wrong, but I found it rather hard to believe that every male in the universe would be drawn to her like a moth to flame.
I must also praise the film’s sound design and soundtrack, elements which really added to the tone. I particularly liked the use of a cover of America’s “Sister Golden Hair,” perfectly cued as Mandy and her friends enjoy a last bit of youthful abandon before (presumably) the carnage begins: it’s a folky, wispy cover that is not only quite pretty but also fits the scene like a glove. Equally notable is the Bobby Vinton version of “Sealed with a Kiss” that closes the film: to be honest, the entire climax is extremely well done and pretty great, even if the “twist” is nothing special.
With all of these things to recommend it, then, what’s my hesitation with shouting my love of Mandy Lane from the rooftops? Well, essentially, there’s that whole thing about anticipation. You see, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane was made in 2006 but not released in North America until 2013 (the film received a limited UK release in 2008, however). It received good press at film festivals around the time of its completion, leading me to add the film to my “Must See” list at the time. As the years ground on, however, I actually forgot about the movie. Director Jonathan Levine went on to decent success with the Joseph Gordon Levitt cancer film 50/50 and, more recently, the zombie romance Warm Bodies which, I’m sure, helped to finally push All the Boys Love Mandy Lane into the public eye.
Is the film honestly worth a seven-year wait, however? Absolutely not. It’s a good film, sometimes a very good film but it doesn’t reinvent the wheel (or the genre, for that matter) or bring anything new to the table aside from the very nice cinematography and production designs. This was Levine’s debut feature but ended up being his fourth film to see release…yikes. As a comparison, Joss Weadon’s Cabin in the Woods and Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat also experienced unduly lengthy release delays. They also, however, were incredibly crafted, highly-meta film experiences that justified every second of their ridiculous delays. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is just a really good film that probably would have looked even better in 2006.
How in the hell can you not absolutely love Werner Herzog? I mean, really: if this guy isn’t the living embodiment of The Most Interesting Man in the World, who is? He’s been responsible for some of the most amazing, confounding art films in history (Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Fitzcarrldo; Only Dwarfs Start Small), some of the most batshit crazy Klaus Kinski moments in a career filled to bursting with batshit (the aforementioned Aguirre; Nosferatu the Vampyre; Cobra Verde), made a handful of amazing documentaries, including one about a guy who gets devoured by a grizzly bear and even directed a sequel to Abel Ferrara’s sleazy Bad Lieutenant starring the one and only Nicholas “Intensity” Cage. Is there anything Herzog can’t do?
For Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, Herzog serves as co-director and narrative, meaning we get the unmitigated pleasure of listening to Herzog expound on anything and everything around him. Believe me when I say that there are few joys as pure and absolute as listening to Herzog detail the necessary procedures to keep food safe from bears…this, by itself, deserves an Oscar.
As the title indicates, Happy People chronicles an entire year in the lives of a group of Russian hunter/trappers living in the Taiga region of Siberia. Completely inhospitable to the average person, the Taiga is only accessible by helicopter or boat and boats can only dock for a few months in the Summer. As such, this is pretty much one of the toughest places on earth, the kind of location that Jack London would head to for some rest and relaxation. The weather is cold, the terrain is formidable, food is scarce and clouds of mosquitoes fill the air. The hunters spend pretty much the entire year either preparing for the Winter hunt or actually hunting, only seeing their families for a few days at a time every couple of seasons. By all definitions, this is a brutally hard life.
Yet, the film is called Happy People. And, according to what we see (and Herzog tells us), these are happy people, indeed. They’re happy because when they finally leave the (relative) comforts of home and head into the wild to live off the land, they are truly free from the constraints of society. There are no taxes, no governments, no politicians or silly societal rituals to observe. There is only the hunter and his dogs, using their instincts, wits and training to survive and their personal ideals to guide them.
Admittedly, the revelation for the purpose of Herzog’s documentary is rather Zen but it perfectly fits his career-long themes. Herzog has always been an expert at documenting the lengths that man will go to isolate himself from the outside world and the ways in which the world will continue to make itself know. In Happy People, the outside world intrudes in a number of ways, most notably with the politician who visits the remote village to stump for his campaign (only the children pay attention and it’s doubtful that they’re allowed to vote) and the greedy hunters who earn the scorn of the other trappers by hunting and trapping in off seasons, depleting the stole population and putting everyone’s livelihood in jeopardy. Herzog also, for a brief time, turns his cameras on the Ket people, local natives who have fallen into alcoholism and can only collect firewood and perform other menial tasks to earn their pittance for survival. The point is pretty clear: when the outside world intrudes, humanity is crushed, whether spiritually, economically or politically.
As a film, Happy People is extraordinarily well-crafted. The footage is absolutely gorgeous, particularly the stunning and unforgettable Winter footage. There’s plenty of genuine pathos in the film, especially with regards to the relationship between the hunters and their dogs. One story, about a dog sacrificing itself to save its master from a bear, would make the hardest heart crack. The scene where one of the trappers returns to the village via snowmobile while his dog runs beside him, nonstop throughout the day and night, is, quite simply, one of the most magnificent moments ever laid to film. The visual grandeur of the moment is dwarfed by the impossible power of what’s happening: a dog so attuned to its master that it will run for a hundred miles without stopping.
Ultimately, Happy People offers one of the best, most valuable lessons any of us could ever take away from a film: To get through life, you need to grit your teeth and push on, no matter what stands before you. When you come home from a long, hard day of hunting and discover that your cabin has been completely crushed by a fallen tree, sometimes, you just have to grin and repair it. This sounds like a lesson we could all stand to learn.