The Neon Demon

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‘Beauty eats itself’ might be the overarching maxim of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest, an easily consumable, surreal, dreamlike but overly-mannered film sorely lacking in soul, insight or anything approximating skilled storytelling. A pretty young wannabe model Jesse (Elle Fanning) enters the fray, hoping to break-in to the fashion scene in what appears to be an eerily-empty, hollowed out version of L.A. Her youth and inexperience are soon overlooked in favour of her striking looks. She becomes the flavour of the month but in what is a brutally competitive field full of vindictive vixens looking to climb the ladder to fame and success – blood on their hands be damned – Jesse will have to watch her back is she hopes to maintain her place in the pecking order.

It’s almost impossible to believe this Refn screenplay was penned in collaborations with two playwrights – Mary Laws and Polly Stenham – whose currency, you’d imagine, is skilled verbal interaction. Yet there’s precious little evidence of subtlety or perceptiveness here. Hell, even a moment in the film not marred by stilted, usually absurd dialogue would have been appreciated. Certainly on a metaphorical level you can extract some socially relevant commentary about the cruelly disposable, interchangeable nature of beauty, but the message is hollow and futile when saturated by mediocre, sub-Argento stylings that leave you cold.

Refn is, and will always be a favourite director, but his two films since the masterful Drive (2011) have formed what may be the start of a regrettable, inevitable devolution, where his ever-expanding obsession with style curation has utterly stifled any possibility of simultaneously creating something of real substance. The film is, of course, glorious to behold from a visual standpoint, as any Refn film is, thanks on this occasion to a first-time collaborator, cinematographer Natasha Braier. Aesthetically intoxicating, there are moments of brilliance in the off-putting, disorienting way he distorts, eliminates, extracts or plays with colour and light, whilst Cliff Martinez’s amped-up retro score works to brilliant effect in certain scenes, often obscuring their vacuousness.

Fanning is far and away the best thing about The Neon Demon (2016). Jesse’s vulnerabilities and naivety are laid bare early on, exposing her to all sorts of exploitation. Yet her assimilation into this world and transformation into a hardened competitor in the fashion stakes is entirely credible despite being surrounded by increasingly weird goings-on and some truly putrid acting. Australian contributors Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as Jesse’s combatants Gigi and Sarah are just diabolically awful – two of the most wooden, dire performances of recent times. Dexter alumni Desmond Harrington also has a couple of hilariously awful scenes as a farcically intense, almost non-verbal hotshot photographer. Marlon Brando, he’s not. Even the usually reliable Jena Malone as the make-up artist of dubious intent who takes Jesse under her wing feels weirdly out-of-sync in nearly every scene she’s in, including the film’s most embarrassingly awful in which she spends time alone with a corpse.

An overwhelming sense of extraneousness is what ultimately sinks The Neon Demon. Ah, the agony of sitting through so many poorly written, utterly pointless scenes, including every one featuring Keanu Reeves, for starters. This disjointed film sorely lacks cohesion, whilst individual scenes never feel part of a narrative flow, making it a frustrating viewing experience. Those imagining a shrewd illumination of the film’s themes at the end of proceedings will be sorely disappointed. If anything, the final few scenes only exemplify the film’s ill-discipline and asinine, juvenile approach to narrative and, especially, to horror. Subverting social commentary beneath shimmering layer after layer of dizzying, rancid obliqueness does not render it in any way profound. In this case, the notion of creative depth is the very last one to come to mind. The Neon Demon, forgetting its most obvious shortcomings, has enough moments of flickering visual brilliance to make it semi-watchable, but this is, depressingly, but a miniscule step up from Refn’s career low, Only God Forgives.

 

On a side note, here is a film worth seeing in conjunction with this or any other Refn film:

Directed by his wife Liv Corfixen, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014) offers a fascinating insight into the creative processes of the director and the mental anguish that seemingly plagues him with some regularity. It’s basically a behind-the-scenes documentary shot during the production of Only God Forgives (2013) and shows Refn often overly burdened and struggling to come to terms with his day-to-day ordeals. His evaluation of the film ebbs and flows to dangerous degrees as he drifts, often, way too close to the heart of his screenplay, thus eliminating all objectivity in a search for solutions throughout the shoot. In post-production he basically deems the finished product worthless, something nearly every creative person must live with upon completion of a piece. A self-indulgent yet fascinating film; ultimately an acquired taste but essential viewing for Refn aficionados.

 

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Ouija: Origin of Evil

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A prequel to a profitable but – in these parts – little seen film from two years ago directed by Stiles White, Ouija: Origin of Evil is the work of director and co-writer Mike Flanagan, an up-and-coming genre filmmaker having a prolific year and possibly best known for his minor hit Oculus in 2013. Set in 1967, Origin of Evil proves to be, against all expectations, one of the finest and creepiest horror films of recent times. A struggling single mother, Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) uses her persuasive skills and a few tricks of the trade to earn a living on the side as a spiritualist. She views her job not as a means of ripping off paying customers but providing them with comfort in the knowledge of deceased relatives finding solace in the next life. Her oldest daughter Lina (Annalise Basso) contributes to the special effects but views her mother’s work with increasing cynicism.

The soon after introduction of a Ouija board brings all sorts of wearying associations with it besides the whiff of surely B-grade fright-filled theatrics to come. But that’s far from being the case here as the film has a tone and feel that feels unique even if the narrative promises anything but originality. Neither does it work overtime to bombard us with shock moments that don’t feel earned or warranted until the stakes are truly raised in the predictably heated end showdown. Flanagan’s pacing is superb, as is his handling of the young actors, particularly the cast’s youngest member Lulu Wilson as Doris, the person able to channel forces from the next world with a dexterity and unnerving calm that surprises even her mother, especially in the painful wake of the recent loss of the girls’ father Roger (Michael Weaver).

A couple of scenes cleverly pay homage to genre classics, especially The Exorcist (1973), but despite the obvious influences, there’s something surprisingly fresh about Origin of Evil and it only gets better as intrigue grows and the tension is ramped up by Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard. There’s no over-reliance of CGI effects, whilst some of the creepiest little moments are subtly crafted and often kept at edges of the frame for maximum impact. The acting is credibly grounded, even authentically awkward at times. Screen debutant Wilson is a remarkable screen presence, able to transition from cuteness to creepiness as she becomes a manifestation of the evil summoned through the portal of the Ouija board. Even Henry Thomas, former E.T (1982) child star, gives a fine performance as the local school’s priest and principal, dragged into the drama at his own behest.

This is another work from Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, known for generating ridiculous profits from very low-budget genre films in recent years with franchises like Paranormal Activity, Insidious and The Purge, and excellent one-off efforts like Unfriended (2014) and M.Night Shyamalan’s only decent film of recent memory, The Visit (2015). Many of these films are clichéd but highly competent examples of modern horror. Ouija: Origin of Evil is now definitely a personal favourite, for me, and a great leap forward in the career of Flanagan whose next film, likely a Stephen King adaptation, is highly anticipated.

The Infiltrator

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The torturous plight of undercover workers constitutes an increasingly stale sub-genre of its own. Cinema is littered with dramas depicted police offices or special agents burrowing deep behind enemy lines to gain and then betray the trust of unconscionable criminals, all the while surrendering their domestic lives to the dogs as an inevitable payoff. Thankfully, Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator proves to be a cut above the competition in this crowded field. Adapted from former Customs agent Robert Mazur’s book about his 80’s exploits posing as a businessman attempting to gain access to the top financiers a level below the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, Furman’s film is stacked with credible layers whilst boasting a slick, high-gloss aesthetic, an economical screenplay – by partner Ellen Brown Furman – and a brilliantly chosen cast led by the imposing Bryan Cranston as Mazur.

In the film’s opening sequence we get a glimpse of the agent at work, easily able to immerse and ingratiate himself into an inner circle of lowlifes. But when the war on drugs requires a radical escalation, Mazur is chosen by his superior Bonni Tischler (a bland, wasted Amy Ryan) to weasel his way into the outer circle of narcotics players. Assuming the alias Bob Musella, he reluctantly takes on fellow agent Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) as his partner and co-conspirator in attempting to gain traction with the money men whilst climbing the step ladder to the vicinity of Escobar’s lair.

The film’s more generically captured family dynamics, namely the strain placed on Mazur’s marriage to Evelyn – wonderfully underplayed with an increasing apathy by Juliet Aubrey – tilt The Infiltrator into familiar territory but the film’s striking visual texture has a genuine magnetism about it. The crisp cinematography by Joshua Reis, who uses coloured lighting in a manner reminiscent of some of Steven Soderbergh’s best work, gives the film a richly enhanced visual exoticism whilst never betraying Furman’s credible re-creation of time and place.

The exceptional support players complement Cranston brilliantly, especially Benjamin Bratt as Escobar’s charismatic underling Roberto Alcaino who is utterly convinced by Mazur’s act. The two become very close and the genuine mutual respect shared by the pair has us almost dreading that the deferred moment of come-uppance will arrive with a strangely bittersweet charge. Most memorable of the criminal faction is Yul Vazquez’s hilariously eccentric Javier Espina who more than once rattles Mazur with his untoward attentions. The always entertaining Leguizamo tears it up as the mouthy, rabid dog Abreu whose alignment with the white hats is, nonetheless, never under scrutiny. Diane Kruger also makes a noteworthy contribution as the agent drafted to take part in the ruse as Musella’s fiancée, whose convincing role-playing becomes just as crucial to getting a result as Mazur’s dynamic wheeling and dealing.

With his latest film, Furman makes a lie of any notion of him being a one-hit wonder after his superb Michael Connelly adaptation The Lincoln Lawyer back in 2011. He most recently made the bland Runner Runner (2013) which went down that most hopeless of routes, trying to convince audiences that Justin Timberlake can strike a single credible chord as a dramatic actor. Though The Infiltrator looks great, it avoids being tainted by commercial-minded approach. Flawless cast aside, it has humour, grit, complexity and integrity and even when delving into familiar places, it manages to mostly put an entertaining and interesting spin on the material.

 

Swiss Army Man

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Taken at face value, the story of a disturbed man dragging a flatulent corpse around a forest to converse with as he waits for rescue has the potential to be something offensive and intolerable. But this peculiar, strangely moving film, the work of Daniels – co-writers and directors Daniel Schienert and Dan Kwan – provides us with a uniquely painful portrait of mental illness.

On the verge of suicide by hanging on what is seemingly a tiny spit of land in the middle of nowhere, Hank (Paul Dano) spots a body washing up on the beach. When his rope snaps he takes it as an omen that the dead man (Daniel Radcliffe), who he later names Manny, has been sent to keep him alive. Once he reveals a capacity to speak Manny displays a naivety about life and an ignorance of his previous life in the world of the living.

As if directing a child, Hank reveals to his all-purpose, interactive corpse friend the fundamental aspects of life, including behaviour to adopt in direct contact with the opposite sex. Often aimless, uncomfortably grim and just as regularly blackly humourous, Swiss Army Man (2016) is concerned with establishing the way in which the two form an intimate bond and unlikely alliance in forging onward, despite Hank’s misgivings, to get back to the world.

In a sense this instruction is as much about Hank’s need to re-educate himself about the life that he’s avoided but must inevitably return to. Having Manny as a wall to bounce off provides him with the necessary objectivity to untangle his own shortcomings and pierce the haze created by his unstable, dysfunctional perception of life. In the briefest of snippets we see Hank riding a bus and taking notice of a woman who becomes the focus of a fixation that will define him in strange, perturbing ways as his interaction with Manny takes on greater detail.

With stunning work from Paul Dano and a fine assist from Daniel Radcliffe – two actors increasingly unafraid to take creative chances in their careers – Swiss Army Man evolves into a deliciously strange, often bizarre cinematic experience which will earn your admiration for its devotion to a brazenly idiosyncratic point of view. A couple of montages in which an internal, yet interactive world – created by Hank using the detritus of tourists to fashion a bus, a stage, costumes and countless other things – comes to life, provide the film with its most loopily inspired moments. They also offer a brilliant overlapping of image and sound as the equally unconventional, off-kilter score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell contributes a strange magic of its own.

With a literal interpretation out of the question, there are multiple ways, obviously, to deduce the unfolding of the film’s narrative. It becomes clear, however, that Schienert and Kwan’s interest is in illuminating the often piercingly creative internal life of a damaged psyche. Through Hank we see something startling coming to life, offering genuine poignancy, especially as the slightly incongruent, not entirely successful, final scenes arrive. And as they do, a pervasive sadness, in which all of Hank’s inhibitions, anxieties and apprehensions about his life outside of Manny and the forest, are uncomfortably confirmed, is juxtaposed with an elusive, consolatory flash of liberation from the very same constrictions that prevented Hank from fulfilling any kind of destiny.

 

Miles Ahead

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Clearly a labour of love for director Don Cheadle, Miles Ahead (2016) paints a portrait in miniature but still manages to capture the indomitable spirit of legendary jazz artist Miles Davis. Cheadle’s own portrayal of a man he feels feted to play is remarkably controlled, capturing – through different time periods – both the suave confidence of an artist at his peak and the vulnerabilities and insecurities that ultimately savaged his relationship with love of his life Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi).

Cheadle’s treatment of Davis’s legacy, achieved in consultation with many of the jazzman’s relatives and co-written with Steven Baigelman, has been brilliantly conceived. Rather than settle on a traditional biopic with all its attendant creative traps and pitfalls, Cheadle has gone for an uncompromising, at times almost avant-garde approach in which a mostly fictional central scenario from 1980 is surrounded by non-linear vignettes from Davis’s past. At this point in time he’s a washed-out, haunted figure, holed up in a New York apartment, having gone to ground whilst leaving little clues behind for his devotees in their search for the cause of his five year long creative drought.

Using the fictional creation of a relentless journalist (Ewan McGregor’s Dave Brill) attempting to get close to his subject, the film dabbles with elements of a crime thriller. A series of flashy, energetic scenes are interwoven into the narrative as a sought after new recording by Davis becomes a bone of contention between him, his studio and others all trying to get their hands on it for profit. Guns are fired, a car chase ensues, but through it all Davis remains calculatingly cool and threatening.

Slowly the flashbacks bleed into the present, both informing and reshaping our opinion of Davis the man and artist after this intriguing creative standstill. Like so many creative types he’s a prickly, difficult character but admirably upfront and candidly blunt. Cheadle’s exemplarily attuned performance, in which he gets the vocal and physical traits of the man down pat, is simply outstanding.

Somehow the swirling narrative of Miles Ahead coheres like a bruised, dreamy jazz riff. The essence of Davis is captured without betraying glimpses of his genius but, conversely, not with so much reverence that the darker underlying streaks of his nature are camouflaged. In Cheadle’s more than capable hands, the rawness of Davis’s attitudes to authority, his demeanour and his ability to polarise is uncompromised.

Despite his self-destructive tendencies – another convenient cliché that’s given fresh and tender sidebars to make it feel as though conflicting instincts are being given interesting perspective – Davis is endearingly flawed. His relationship with Frances is tender and rich with both delicate and indelicate nuances. Cheadle’s greatest feat, for me, is being able to sift through the wealth of material at his disposal and, with great economy, reduce the couple’s love to its qualifying essence in the way it is shaped, supported and, finally, irrevocably harmed by Davis.

Green Room

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An end-of-its-rope, down-on-its-luck metal band, struggling to feed itself, is willing to go almost anywhere to fill an open slot. When a connection lines up what just might be a final gig for this apathetic crew, they’re not even particularly fazed that it’s in a remote location and for an audience of Neo-Nazi skinheads. After initially riling up the locals with their song selection, the band – comprised of Pat (Anton Yelchin), Tiger (Callum Turner), Reece (Joe Cole) and Sam (Alia Shawkat) – make it through their set alive.

Then Sam, returning for a charged-up mobile phone, sees something she shouldn’t in the shape of a corpse with a knife embedded in its head and a witness, Amber (Imogen Poots), close at hand. A flurry of activity follows. In the skirmish, the band locks themselves in the room of the title and attempt to negotiate out of what seems like a very snug cul-de-sac without being slaughtered. Emerging from the night to take charge of proceedings is skinhead leader and owner of the facility, Darcy, played with relish and against type by Patrick Stewart.

Things then slow down for a period, with the band heavily outnumbered and limited escape options available to them. Frantic debate about whether to adopt an advance or retreat philosophy follows, with only the leverage of a gun that fell into their hands in the initial blur of activity at their disposal. Can they find another exit? Will the Nazi’s listen to reason and allow them safe passage away from the club?

There’s little in the way of deep characterisation to be found in Green Room. This represents a deliberate choice for writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s whose intentions are very different here to those in his last film, the utterly riveting Blue Ruin (2013). Yet all the band members register enough so that we don’t completely detach ourselves from any sort of empathetic response when the stakes are raised to extremes by the bloodthirsty locals.

The motivations of the Nazi majority do seem overly complicated; at times they become their own worst enemies in adhering to Darcy’s method of extraction without necessarily taking lives. Consequently, aspects of the narrative feel dragged out, but Saulnier is able to increasingly amplify quiet moments with heart-pounding anticipation as the dingy, shadow-layered confines of the club and surrounding corridors close in like a claustrophobic vice on the survivors.

Many of Green Room’s best moments come in the form of expertly staged visceral outbursts that punctuate the tension derived from what is a limited but cleverly conceived Assault on Precinct 13-like B-grade horror scenario. Saulnier’s craft far exceeds low genre craftsmanship however, working within his means to produce a very fine film of its type. It never devolves into a senseless bloodbath though you may still feel like a cleansing shower at the end of it all. It’s also never clear who’ll survive exactly, if anyone – always a good thing.

Stewart is seemingly having a ball in his embodiment of the emotionless husk that is Darcy, whilst Macon Blair, star of Blue Ruin, provides an understated dignity as the quietly assertive Gabe. In essence, he represents the lone flickering flame of humanity amongst the skinheads. For Saulnier, this is not a creative great leap forward but neither is it a step back; indeed, cult status is possible for this sinister, darkly hued drama that offers no apologies in delivering a series of very neatly placed gut-punches.

Midnight Special

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The increasingly impressive Jeff Nichols continues to diversify as a filmmaker, his follow-up to brilliant Southern drama Mud (2012), an evocative indie sci-fi film in which a young boy with a special gift is hunted down by government agencies and a cult looking to exploit him for the purpose of fulfilling a religious prophecy. As Midnight Special (2016) opens, the boy, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), has been abducted from the cult by his natural father Roy (regular Nichols muse Michael Shannon) and an old friend, renegade state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Roy’s face is pasted all over the news and around every corner lurks the threat of capture.

Taking to the road, we learn incrementally of important finer details, including a time and place that has special significance. Roy’s sole purpose becomes the necessity to transport Alton to that location, whilst along the way they pick up the boy’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). In alternating scenes we see government science boffin Sevier (Adam Driver) attempting to work the pieces of the puzzle from the ‘official’ perspective, predicting where the boy will be and how his employers can acquire him for their own purposes.

The mystery generated in the early scenes and maintained throughout is a large part of Midnight Special. Nichols poses tantalising questions – the most central of which is what exactly will happen will they reach the appointed place at the appointed time? We get glimpses of Alton’s startling, otherworldly gifts but how he acquired them remains unanswered. Nichols doesn’t over-cram his screenplay with fleshed-out details which may be a major flaw for many looking to plough through the inscrutability but he creates a uneasy tone that intrigues with a hint of danger and supernatural possibility.

Shannon has an intense, glowering presence like few other actors and here he mostly keeps Roy’s emotional extremes to a minimum, internalizing his frustration and pain to the point that he feels like he must inevitably combust. What is conveyed is Roy’s love for his son and his desire to play an important role in transporting his most precious cargo. This in turn will lead to vindication of the boy’s prognostications as he sets about taking any means necessary – including highly unlawful ones – to get Alton to that appointed location.

The mood of the film is distinctly nostalgic. This ponderous but never predictable indie sci-fi road trip comes with a heavy Starman (1984) vibe attached to it. The throwback feel is only enhanced by David Wingo’s mostly synthesised score which features a brilliant, haunting main theme. The awe and wonder evoked by the film’s major set-piece near the end may be just enough of a payoff to justify the director’s generally oblique approach to the material. Midnight Special is flawed, undoubtedly, but for me there’s enough distinctiveness attributable to Nichols’ approach on display to believe that he’s further cemented his growing reputation as one of American independent cinema’s most promising talents.