The Neon Demon


‘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.





Nostalgia can only carry a reinvented concept so far without genuine substance to support it. A third Ghostbusters film was rumoured for years before the advancing age of the original cast members seemingly put a final nail in the coffin of a much anticipated regeneration. But Hollywood, now approaching critical mass in its search for a new creative nadir, has too often shown disdain for even the most beloved touchstone films of generations past.

With nothing off limits, the re-tooled inversion of Ivan Reitman’s original Ghostbusters (1984) has arrived. Comedy central’s flavours of the months, Melissa McCarthy as paranormal investigator Abby Yates and Kristen Wiig as disgraced academic Erin Gilbert, take the lead roles. They’re joined by Leslie Jones’s ballsy transit worker Patty Tolan and Kate McKinnon’s slightly kooky science boffin Jillian Holtzmann in director Paul Feig’s reconfiguration of the original quartet, unwittingly called into action to solve New York’s outbreak of ghostly pranksters.

The cameos from original cast members are mercifully brief. A bust of the late Harold Ramis means that without dialogue he fares best. Dan Ackroyd’s few rushed lines as a harried cab driver apathetically negotiating his way through the finale’s ghoulish hell storm are passable, whilst Ernie Hudson as Patty’s uncle and Sigourney Weaver as Holtzman’s mentor are inoffensively ticked off. However Bill Murray’s couple of scenes as a psychic debunker are awful and borderline embarrassing, his last fleeting moment – ejected through a window by the crew’s first captured ghost – provides a fitting final indignity of sorts.

The blatant padding in Feig and Katie Dippold’s overstretched screenplay becomes more obviously damaging as the film progresses. For a while the sheer novelty of this new incarnation and the solid chemistry created between Bridesmaids alumni McCarthy and Wiig and, especially, the quirky McKinnon carries it along without too many dead spots. But as the plot gets lazy and loses all focus and, naturally, the CGI quotient expands, the pitfalls that taint every single over-blown, over-budgeted Hollywood event film become issues.

Nonsensical battles, possessions and a slimed-up flood of extraneous scenes are soon the order of the day. There’s virtually zero wit on display, which isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker – Hollywood has provided a multitude of offerings with concepts of ‘witlessness’ and ‘entertaining’ crowding the same space – but a slew of rank, cringeworthy scenes are definitely an issue. Case-in-point, the gang’s meeting with NYC’s mayor (Andy Garcia) to discuss their unofficial status which is riddled with one clunky line after another. Chris Hensworth as a moronic beefcake hired to be the women’s secretary is simply too stupid to be funny for anyone with even fifty percept cerebral capacity, whilst bug-eyed Neil Casey is appropriately cast if utterly unmemorable in the Rick Moranis mould as a beaten-down loser vengefully unleashing an apocalyptic battery of ghosts in an effort to achieve immortality.

Very few iconic moments from the original are recreated, which wouldn’t be a problem if Feig and Dippold were able to conceive equally memorable scenarios. At the end of the day, this updated Ghostbusters (2016), whilst conceptually fresh and imbued with, initially, with a genuine liveliness and sense of fun, simply runs out of legs. It’s entertaining enough, certainly, but you simply reach a point where you just want it to end. The final half hour is tediously anti-climactic, a wearying feeling only enhanced by subsequent news of the certain sequels to come.



The Wailing



From its scenes of villagers inflicted with a madness compelling them to commit unspeakable crimes to its chilling sequences of a shaman attempting to flush an evil presence from inhabiting the body of a young girl, Hong-jin Na’s long-awaited third film extracts genre thrills from the complex narrative of a humble policeman racked by visions as a series of murders poisons his town. The Wailing, like Na’s previous two films, serial-killer drama The Chaser (2008) and border-crossing thriller The Yellow Sea (2010), has wonderfully executed set-pieces that evolve organically from his long-winded but never less than compelling storytelling.

And like those earlier films, The Wailing (2016) is a bloated beast, clocking in at over two and a half hours. It appears, if you were to read the synopsis, a slowly evolving mystery thriller, but make no bones about it – The Wailing is a full-blooded horror film marked by scenes of demonic possession, blood-soaked savagery and a holy man attempting an elaborate exorcism of sorts.

Jong-Doo (Do-Won Kwak) is the officer whose troubling dreams coincide with a series of inexplicable crimes and the appearance of a mysterious Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) whose presence is seen as a harbinger of doom. Jong-Doo is hilariously portrayed as a philanderer and a wimp whose first inclination is to whimper and scream like a girl in the face of mortal danger. Simultaneously he represents yet another uncomfortable reinforcement of the idea of general police incompetence in South Korea as first posed by Na in The Chaser.

When Jong-Doo’s daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) becomes inflicted and seemingly possessed, he’s advised to bring in a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) to consult with and provide direction. The ritualistic rites performed by the shaman are magnificently staged by Na with a riveting, relentless fervour. With the overwhelming sound of overheated gongs and drums beating like a trillion racing hearts, the shaman attempts to flush out the spirits plagued Hyo-jin, though by the end of this thrilling, elongated sequence, little progress seems to have been made.

Na’s deliberately paced screenplay allows for a fascinating and highly credible transformation in Jong-Doo. His earlier docility and emasculating instincts slowly dissolve as the affliction takes a very personal turn. He’s galvanised into action and the changes in him coincide with Na’s ratcheting up of the film’s intensity. Requisite twists and revelations are used cannily whilst a genuinely unsettling, eerie tone of impending doom begins to settle like a pall over proceedings, leading to a classic good versus evil confrontation that doesn’t play out exactly as you might imagine.

The film pulls no punches as the final scenes draw near. The bleakness remains resolute until the very end, and the admirable conviction of Na’s final twists will be troubling to some, but heartily embraced for their lack of compromise by others. With The Wailing, Na has completed a trifecta of distinct, energetically fashioned films; all three might be said to be excessively long – a criticism not without merit, however the level of this fine director’s craft is undeniable and hopefully the wait for his fourth feature will be a much shorter one.


Midnight Special



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.

Pay the Ghost

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The curious creative devolution of Nicolas Cage continues unabated, it seems, with this supernatural tale of other dimensional forces abducting the young son, Charlie (Jack Fulton), of a literature professor Mike Lawford (Cage) from a street parade on Halloween night. The opening scene, a 45 second piece set in a distant century, is supposed to act as a framing device and clue to uncovering the eventual ‘solution’ – if that’s the right word for a showdown that sees the aggrieved father entering a portal in hopes of retrieving his boy.

A few prosperous years back Cage must have been barely able to suppress his mirth at the thought of actors, well and truly,on the slippery slide to straight-to-video obscurity, signing up for C-grade stuff like this. Now here he is putting his own signature upon the dotted line sometimes 4 or 5 times in a year for films that – let’s be frank – haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of ever making it to the big screen. There are the aberrations, of course – and welcome ones at that, such as Cage’s brilliant Adam West-like contribution as the insanely devoted Big Daddy to Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl in Matthew Vaughn’s magnificent Kick-Ass (2010). Even just a couple of years ago, David Gordon Green gave him a juicy role in Joe (2013) as an intense, compelling loner set on a path to inevitable self-destruction.

The mainstream will clearly never forget Cage, but for the most part, his stocks have fallen alarmingly and combined with a relentless desire to continually get on the merry-go-round, thus spreading himself thinly across a swath of incoming projects, means that a swan dive into future bargain bins will likely uncover an ocean of washed-up cinematic corpses as his career further devolves. But then there’s the fact that Cage will soon be seen in the next films of Oliver Stone and Paul Schrader as well as Larry Charles’s new comedy, Army of One, as “an American civilian” who “sets out on his own to find Osama Bin Laden.” A man who has been living in a bunker for a while without internet access or a copy of Zero Dark Thirty?

It’s fascinating to see how various careers converge in these too-easy-to-castigate productions. To say that the trajectory of director Uli Edel has taken some dramatic upward and downward turns, not unlike Cage, would be an understatement. Christiane F. (1981), his early Hubert Selby Jr. adaptation Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) and his recent triumphant return to Germany for The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) have all placed him in a positive light. At the other end of the scale, notorious Madonna vehicle Body of Evidence (1993) and lame family ‘comedy’ Little Vampire (2000) are credits that any director might want to erase from their back catalogue. And yet, like Cage, here he is, roped into Pay the Ghost, which admittedly holds dearest, at its core, the concept of desperate, eternal parental love for a missing child – the kind of familiar theme that strikes a chord in the lives of all. And who doesn’t love a good ghost story?

From that angle too, there’s a certain level of enjoyment to be had from this film which isn’t expressly awful. In fact a relatively eerie tone is established early on and there are a couple of genuine chills achieved as Mike strives, in the wake of his break-up from wife (Sarah Wayne Callies) to trudge through life whilst continuing forlornly to find clues to his son’s disappearance. The Halloween connection is crucial and as, a year later, the date closes in again, Mike enlists the help of an attractive colleague (Veronica Ferres) with a skill for computer research to inch closer to a resolution which he naturally believes will see him somehow reunited with Charlie.

Cage is undoubtedly giving it a fair shake here. He goes with the flow, contorting his face with grief, with anger, with despair, exactly when it’s called for. He’s not terrible, you see. Nor is Callies, an actress whose TV work on Prison Break and The Walking Dead has given her much broader appeal. But it’s just that Cage’s craft – as well as his ability to judiciously choose projects – has mostly abandoned him. We may ridicule them for being unable to reach past heights, but we forgive actors a lot too – especially one whose been in so many great to very good, often iconic, films. Cage’s CV is stacked with many that I’d consider absolute personal favourites.

How to forget Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck (1987), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), Andrew Bergman’s Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Red Rock West (1993), his Oscar winner Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Brain De Palma’s Snake Eyes (1998), Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999), and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002). All staggering films in their own ways. And do I dare mention Joel Schumacher’s 8MM (1999) or Brett Ratner’s The Family Man (2000) as weird kinds of guilty pleasures? No, no I don’t. Then there’s that extraordinary action triumvirate of Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996), Simon West’s Con-Air (1997) and John Woo’s operatic Face/Off (1997). And do you really think you can live through Drive Angry (2007) and not be scarred for the rest of your life?

And so Cage, more than most, deserves to be cut a little slack. Would I realistically recommend Pay the Ghost? Not to the serious minded, certainly, but there’s no denying that we’ve all plugged, semi-enjoyably, through legions of films of this ilk without actively hating them for existing and even secretly – very secretly – imagining that they weren’t, by a long shot, the worst thing we’ve ever seen. This is just another film, one of hundreds each year laboured and sweated over as if, through the intervention of a benign divinity, they may be end up being a significant contribution to the art form; before finally, depressingly, dissolving like butter on a summer sidewalk, forgotten and abandoned by you and I to a world screaming past, a blur impossible to decipher to a stationary dot on a map. So before we part, let’s take a moment, here and now, while there’s still time, while there’s still a modicum of motivation and a tiny morsel of generosity still nestled in our hearts, to record its near-silent passing. Pay the Ghost is yours to own, revisit or ignore on a shelf forever, on DVD. Right now.