THE NEON DEMON (2016)
reviewed by Audy Christianos
R | 118 min | France, Denmark, USA | June 24, 2016 (USA)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham
Stars: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Runtime: 118 min
When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.
Refn’s second movie since his art-house modernist crime thriller Drive, and the languid paced oedipal puzzle box of Only God Forgives, set The Neon Demon up with anticipatory fail with its hallowed promise of its drippy style and euro-trash attitude blithely delivered with a blank cynicism of altruistic obtrusiveness. This is Refn’s second time filming in L.A. and it’s clear that Refn, like so many other directors loves the warm, cool slick blanket the city tucks behind its films, but with this latest effort, it’s quite apparent L.A. no longer loves him back. The movie which is led by soft-faced, saucer eyed Elle Fanning, follows her character Jesse, an aspiring, orphan entering into the cutthroat subterranean, lethal culture of high fashion. Jesse, in the beginning of the movie is 16, and wants to be a model but lies to get jobs. She tells a weird, gaunt, hipster photographer that she is 19. She gets the job because we need the movie to move forward; and for every audition, she gets to the front of the line, possessing a power with her look and thus is the subject inexplicable industry worship.
Of course this comes at a cost – She bumps into Jena Malone’s, necropheliac loving - going my way - make-up artist Ruby, who at first seems to genuinely care for Jesse, but looks can be deceiving. It’s not that her character, as mouthpiece proxy of Refn’s visual style isn’t interesting nor doesn’t care for Jesse, but, it’s clear Refn has better things to do as in keeping you submerged in the hot liquid sheen of his film.
The movie’s biggest fault is two folded: It purposely left vague as to what type of movie it is, along with Refn choosing to template the film as a philosophical discourse on how beauty makes the fashion world go round which, as a thematic center is a really insipid thesis. Is Refn’s film a horror? - Maybe, is it a thriller – at times, is it Sci-Fi? Only if Cliff Martinez’s score dictates it, or is it a drama? Sure if you count Keanu Reeves having to eat the cost of the broken door to Jesse’s mountain lion booty call. The trouble with this film, is that on his own merits Refn, is anything but uninteresting and definitely knows what he is doing, but there seems to be a tension within himself on giving it to us in a digestable manner. Things can look cool, but that only goes so far with a film that limps to its ungratifying climax. This movie is representational of Refn at his best and worst: giving us a sexy, irresistible, hot plate of brilliant visual gibberish.
Fashion, as one might guess is a complex thing: easy to admire, hard to intellectually grasp and esoteric in is industrial sensibility to the general public. One assumes, with fashion, that yes, it’s an industry built on good-looking clothes, skyscraper legged models, and fashion designers that are the real auteurs in telling what you want before you know. Movies that reflect this commentary, transport you into the world, exposing the machinations of how, beauty is everything, and without it, you’re an apparition. This is apparent in the comedy Devil Wears Prada, or the Anna Wintour-centric documentary the September issue about Vogue – but the thing with those movies that made the message translatable regarding the currency of beauty, that Refn didn’t get right, is that there was a tangible reason to the commodity of beauty that drove those movies, and how it can be leveraged into business, that runs deeper, meaningful beyond the vapid quandary of beauty on the outside, ugly on the inside complex. Refn decides to not prove the worth of his interest with any intellectual validation other than having a dead-ended silly discourse of beauty in the emptiest, styrofoamic way possible.
Elle Fanning, who was 16 at the beginning of the production, and 18 as I write this, was at home with this movie. She cloyed and babydolled every scene in the best way possible, giving into the predatory threatening danger of the world around her. You can see why Refn casted her. She possessed a freshness, and versatility that I don’t know many other actresses her age could have provided. She needed to be innocent, naïve yet, dangerously conceited that plays into an ultimate school girl benevolence and when Refn decides to stabilized his music video mania, he gives uncomfortable, evocative moments built around her, but that is all they are – moments, not a film.
Refn has the filmmaking strength to have you squirm with enticement, but there isn’t a momentum to push it with more force. I can only hope that, Refn, will stop trying to write his own films – he’s not David Lynch, and this isn’t Mulholland Drive, for if it were, I would give an honest effort on wanting to find out more, but I don’t because there isn’t anything worth salvaging. Strobe light, thumping rave music is well-meaning window dressing, but this needed narrative juice to easily down the demented abstraction at the sake of a more cohesive film structure.
This movie could have been better, and Refn knows that. It is unforgettable on how it chose to tell its story visually, but beyond that it was too “Valley Beyond the Dull”. The film industry has a love hate relationship with Refn – he was booed and jeered his last two times at Cannes for this and Only God Forgives – but because we want more, and know that he is capable, he seems perfectly adept to letting us down for the second movie in a row, and now he is officially on notice he is too talented not to be good, even though this movie almost convinced me otherwise.
2 out of 4 stars
THE LOBSTER (2016)
reviewed by Audy Christianos
R | 1h 59min | Comedy, Drama, Romance | 13 May 2016 (USA)
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou
Stars: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden
Runtime: 119 min
Sound Mix: D-Cinema 48kHz 5.1
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Colin Farrell stars as David, a man who has just been dumped by his wife. To make matters worse, David lives in a society where single people have 45 days to find true love, or else they are turned into the animal of their choice and released into the woods. David is kept at the mysterious hotel while he searches for a new partner, and after several romantic misadventures decides to make a daring escape to abandon this world. He ultimately joins up with a rebel faction known as The Loners, a group founded on a complete rejection of romance. But once there David meets an enigmatic stranger (Rachel Weisz) who stirs up unexpected and strong feelings within him.
“It’s no coincidence that the targets are shaped like single people instead of couples.” This line delivered dry and acerbic to our protagonist David is the perfect encapsulation of what the movie haunts over him in the short window of time he has to find a new romantic match or be turned into the animal of his choice, a lobster, for all eternity. If this sounds hilarious it’s because it should be and is. The movie co-written and directed by Greek filmmaker, Yargos Lanthimos, mixes a gut-busting cocktail of three counts sharp deadpan wit with one count of social satire. The Lobster’s promise is so unabashedly unique that if I told you that I completely understood the whole movie, I would only be lying to you. It’s intentionally ambiguous. The fascination of this film is that for the first half, Lanthimos presents a subversive world within the hotel where nothing seems to make sense. As the movie begins, David checks in and is asked formal questions to prep him for his transition. He responds blankly. Farrell doesn’t let us in on exactly what his character is thinking and thereby we don’t know what to think - he lets the movie do all the talking.
Farrell, who has reinvented himself in the past couple of years, starting with his Golden Globe award winning performance as a convincing low-rent “heart on his sleeve hitman” in the crime caper In Bruges. From there he set down a path to where he has carved himself a small role corner that really fits him well. His looks want more but he could never deliver “star turns.” In movies, however, where his looks don't rely solely on them, he shines and this is that movie. His David looks beaten. Barely making eye contact with anyone, carrying weight all in his midsection, of metaphorical despair and tax accountant passivity. Farrell performs in such a downplayed nuanced hilt that you are forced to take him seriously regardless of your preconceived notions about him. He’s that good.
And so are the other actors that share scenes with him, from the benevolent limp legged Ben Whishaw to venerable character actor/comedian John C. Reilly whose character talks with such a crumbled lisp that one would understandably lie to him just to stop from laughing in his face. The movie is at its fiercest when trapped in the hotel. Every man is wearing a blazer/tie, and all the woman suitors look like sister wives doing 50’s suburbia spring cleaning. Whishaw, to court one, goes so far as to bang his head on a table to get his nose to bleed just so he can be matched with a pretty young female companion with the same ailment. Safe to say the gag works.
The film’s style lends to offbeat humor, with a sleepy undercurrent of lethargic mania. Action is played to madcap effect dramatizing the absurdity of it all. In the best sequence of the movie, the hotel guests are loaded onto a truck only to be dispatched to the woods to a “fox and the hound” shoot ’em up to hunt the “loaners” in the woods with the reward being for every loaner caught, an extra day is given to extend the patron’s stay.
The sequence is filmed drenched with the wonderful dreariness of Greek piano piece - Apo Mesa Pethamenos by Denai. The scenes give a melancholic wither that would make the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing ending proud. Lanthimos' direction crescendos epically with controlled deviousness of David and the other guests slashing and swaying through the trees shooting tranquilizer darts at other humans (loaners) in order to maintain their own humanity or else finding time running short on their own. It’s all done with farcical aplomb.
With this energy and obscurity, The Lobster offers a fresh intensity with its commentary against the proxy of institutionalized social norms by hammering the theme that humans are no better than animals, regardless of man’s definition of civilization. Lanthimos could care less about telling it how he feels straight faced, as evidenced by his track record, because that would be boorishly dull and who wants that?
Regardless of how ironically funny the ideology of the movie is, you keep hoping that David will find his match, and not turn into a lobster. This is when Rachel Weisz comes in. The two demonstrate exactly what it is that Lanthimos is going for with an eccentric love connection, but this is when the movie is at its least interesting. Both actors play well off of one another, with Weisz demonstrating her natural girl next door charm and whimsy, and both stay true to inhabiting a world that makes sense only to them, but it’s presented far too conventional against that of the off-beat Luis Brunellian nonsensical offerings the film delivered in the first half of the film.
When first watching this I thought I had finally found the film I had been looking for for quite some time, and at many moments in the first half of the movie, it was that. However, like my review of Lenny Abrahamson’s academy award nominated The Room, once the movie shifted into our knowing of familiarity opposed to the unknowing of the first half’s warm but dreary moralistic macabre, the movie slightly loses its way. What saves it from not becoming truly disappointing with its conventional turn is Farrell’s lead, the movie’s art direction dripping with its satirical personality, and the loose way The Lobster presents itself while having substance to mock the world’s subjected hypocrisy on mating in its tranquilized cross-hairs.
3 out of 4 stars