The Neon Demon – A Review

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The Neon Demon (rated 18), directed by the opinionated, edgy and unshy Danish powerhouse Nicolas Winding Refn, hits on the fashion – more specifically modelling – industry for its vulgarity, emptiness and insatiable obligation for perfection like thousands of films before it have done. But Refn made it sexier with flashing lights and deep bass, he made this film moodier with acerbic writing and caricaturish characters. He recreates the insanity and the loneliness of being at the top, the fleeting feelings of acceptance and euphoria, and the crushing deprecation from those who are hot towards those who for some genetic aesthetic faux pas are not.

So small town girl Jesse (Elle Fanning), wide-eyed and innocent looking like a young Sissy Spacek has had a friend snap a few shots of her dolled up and dead-eyed (she’s posing dead on a chaise lounge) and she’s straight up got what everybody wants. She’s an angelic natural blonde, 16 years old and glowing radiantly from every angle like she’s eaten the Fountain of Youth. Christina Hendricks, like Matthew McConaughey in Wolf of Wall Street, appears briefly. Here, as a talent agent – an impressed, awe-struck agent – she compares Jesse to the other girls; how she sees little cutie-pie country bumpkins every week but none like Jesse, no, “You’re going to be great” she finishes with, encouragingly.

And henceforth down the rabbit-hole young Jesse tumbles. Holed up alone in a cheap motel Jesse combats loneliness by maintaining her “friendship” with her original photographer and diving into the “social” scene where America’s tallest, thinnest and emptiest elite look at one another piercingly, “who’re you f-ing?” she’s asked repeatedly by the other models who at first are clearly too self-absorbed to see what the agents, photographers and designers are inevitably going to be turned on by. I say turned on deliberately, one particular designer brutally ignores the “who’re you f-ing?” girl and, upon seeing Jesse, hilariously and orgasmically oozes wonderment and you can see the inspiration forming into design ideas in the light of his eyes.

Refn moves The Neon Demon along with quiet discussion and deliberately bland, robotic situations that paint a picture of what people in the industry can be like. Very pretentious characters pour over their own ego and brag of their work whilst still seeming hugely defensive and insecure, immediately attacking one another to protect their image when the need arises. These more refined scenes are merely intervals in the visual spectacle of several sensational scenes that portray the manic high-energy party lifestyle, the euphoria of being the undisputed best, the hysteria in finding sadness during moments of self-realisation. The combination of light and dark emotional times for Jesse and the visualisation of these abstract human urges like wanting to be a recognised individual but still part of a community with the gritty Refn twists make for a thoroughly entertaining film. The music is electrifying and contributed further to my feeling that Gaspar Noé was a major influence here (many moments derivative of Enter The Void and even the presence of Karl Glusman from Noé’s Love, another incredibly provocative film).

To summarise, this is a work that’s clearly a progression of Refn’s oeuvre, it takes from but is not particularly similar to all of the Director’s work, which is hugely commendable. The sets, costumes and general seething vibe throughout brought about a tone which I felt could exist in the cut-throat world of high-fashion.

A must-watch, stay for the music video/credits sequence thing, it’s sick.

8.1/10

Cemetery of Splendour – A Review

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Cemetery of Splendour, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s newest film was exactly what my mind and body needed after a long-ish week to relieve a little tension. The film exists in the lives of the people supporting a small band of comatose soldiers recovering in a pop-up ward in a classroom in a small village. My only other experience with the director is with Boonmee, a gentle, spiritual film not unlike Cemetery of Splendour.

Jen, a volunteer in the ward with a wide-eyed American husband and legs of unequal length, devoutly worships her religious idols in the hopes of being rewarded with a youthful appearance. The tranquil village hums with the incessant chirps and skrees of invisible insects, chickens and smaller winged creatures walk where they please as the people of this settlement go about their business: attending doctor appointments, visiting the library etc. Jen and the nurses sit aside their wounded patients without much to offer aside from cleaning their bodies, delaying bed sores and talking to ears like one might talk to their growing plants. The doctor, rarely present, oversees installation of coloured light therapy equipment said to fight off bad dreams in the patients; the 6ft hook/candy cane shaped glowing poles bathe the still space in soft hues like those found lighting a quiet 70s drug fuelled chill-out rather than a nightclub.

A young medium, Keng, who can communicate with the men builds bridges between Jen and one particular soldier who Jen, after reading the man’s cryptic notebook, begins to see like the son she never had. Around the same time, Jen learns a potential reason for why the men won’t wake that’s based just as deeply in the realm of the intangible; slowly, Jen, taking what she knows and doesn’t know about life, deliberates her awareness of herself and those around her.

With almost no CGI and no fancy camera work (~3 instances of pan/zoom in the whole film and the rest being still camera shots) Cemetery of Splendour still proves to be a beautiful film. Most shots are composed and contained within the frame, the story is told without something new entering our field of view or leaving it. It’s beauty for me however was not visual but instead truly spiritual, myths and lore exist on the fringes of being real in this film which in somewhere like this small Thai village is fitting whereas in the modern Western world I live in I couldn’t feel less innately connected to what I can’t see.

A truly meditative experience if given the time and energy.

7.5/10.

The Nice Guys – A Review

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Slick and silly.

Shane Black’s The Nice Guys’ logline could be something along the lines of:

Sentimental strongarm and lovably mopey PI delve into missing girl case and are eventually lead into LA’s Adult Section where if you have the sway anything’s barely legal.

That’s great, watchable, probably, but The Nice Guys is a comedy throughout. It has this storyline that’s ever-present and complicated that subverts your expectations (take the opening of Gosling in the bath wherein first you see just his head, then his dry top half of his clothes so you think the tub is empty, then you see it’s full of water). There’s quiet, tender moments and grand nail-biting action set-pieces, a concluding few scenes with tension comparable to The Chaser for me. It has these highs and lows and still hits the mark with so much of the comedy riddled throughout that left me breathless every few minutes. Slick goodies, slick baddies, slick sets and costumes and silly jokes that undermine it all perfectly; I’m glad I didn’t see X-men instead.

Kind of like in Altman’s Short Cuts the air in town is the invisible driving force behind the film’s plot. Bear-like Crowe and Robert Downey Gosling bring tonnes of energy in their big shades and bright shirts, enamouring us with witty quips and funny petty arguments, slapstick and Jackie Chan-like fancy fight scenes. It felt original, not encroaching on the trodden Hollywood porn house/studio feel of Boogie Nights but instead mixing it with the urgency of Chinatown or LA Confidential and then watering it down with the physicality and silliness of Rush Hour’s frenetic duo.

At 116 minutes it could be a little long for some viewers though I respect that it tended to the relationship-building  scenes between the characters properly, showing restraint in the comedy at the right moments when needed which ultimately pulls us into the conflict when that restraint has its arse slapped and sent packing.

Definitely watch this film.

8/10

 

Everybody wants some!! – A Review

everybody

Back in 1993 Richard Linklater’s iconic film Dazed and Confused gave audiences a nostalgic experience of the back-end of High School in the US in 1976. The film was riddled with surprisingly sage words preached by one high and drunk teenager character to another – a structured development on Slacker’s meandering camera –  that perfectly portrayed the ideas, the hopes, the fears and the humour of its characters. It was insightful, charming, funny – everything I want to be – and in Everybody Wants some!!, Dazed’s proclaimed spiritual successor, Linklater tries it all on again with college students in the 80s and based on his track record, unsurprisingly he makes it work.

Rocking a largely no-name cast and set in a city I can’t remember where, Linklater brings back the 80s like he remembered it. Like in several of his previous works, a handpicked soundtrack accompanies the booty-chasing, ball-playing antics of an extremely athletic house. These guys were all high school superstars – big fish in small ponds – and are now forced together in a falling apart, donated college house in the suburbs; they live like you’d expect; bending the rules, respecting tradition, throwing insults, getting girls..

As someone who’s had a university experience I found the little knowledge bombs interesting. Of course, and this goes for most of Linklater’s repertoire and most films in general, no college kids are full of that much wisdom (though, at least in most cases, wisdom was passed down from the older members of the team to the young’uns) but some of it really did feel wise. In the beginning the guys are cheekily harassing some attractive new arrivals out the window of their party wagon, nothing works but eventually one admits she found the silent guy in the back cute. Later, once more of a relationship has been established between the two star-crossed lovers she admits she’d never of made her remark if the lads weren’t so damn laddy and got her talking. Some (ex-)students might of considered the cat-calling, the pick-up attempts rude and insensitive but it all resulted in something beautiful, a relationship, for two of the participants. These guys just had to be on the ball team, others could just wear a college hoody for their chit-chat initiation tool – get talking, it’s all in the conversation, life.

The film’s got tonnes of energy. The costumes change as frequently as the lads swap their favourite bars; one looking like the opening joint in Boogie Nights, another the bar in Midnight Cowboy. It’s beautifully plotless, just documenting the “Freshers” few days, a clock counts down until class starts – halfway through I wished for time to pass slower.

All in all, it’s another unadulterated Linklater special with no special effects, no excessive anything, just a nostalgic and slightly unrealistic depiction of idyllic American higher education society in the 80s (so lots of funky shirts).

I had me at Linklater.

8.2/10

 

Youth (2015) – A Review

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Youth touched me deeply with its perfect mix of drama and comedy. Sorrentino’s latest feature length piece rests in a gorgeously secluded Spa retreat in the Swiss Alps at the breast of prolific ex-maestro Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine). Pestered to perform for Her Majesty, Ballinger’s tranquil stay is shaken up, disrupted like only a shrieking baby in a small audience could.

Maintaining Luca Bigazzi and Christiano Travaglioli from The Great Beauty as the cinematographer and editor for Youth, Sorrentino maintains and builds upon the divine aesthetic that’s already had him internationally recognised. Sorrentino and crew demonstrate the power of a good shot by making literally every shot interesting; the carousel opening looked like a potential music video, zooming onto Caine rustling a sweet wrapper felt Nolan-esque with the isolation of the audio and the connotations – I heard an orchestral piece in a crackling, crinkled piece of cheap plastic.. Not to mention excellently capturing natural beauty, pulling off dream sequences that would have Fellini doff his hat and frequently introduce delicate and unexpected but not necessarily unorthodox tilts and pans that serve only to heighten the emotions.

Some might dismiss viewing Youth on its title alone, its “pretentious” setting among the elite of the artistic scene or maybe even its aged cast. Unsurprising to Sorrentino fans the film has so much life and vibrant colour spilling out of each frame that the film turned a profit in worldwide box-office (though I’ve no idea how much the marketing budget eats into that).

The simple story is relatable and moves the story along at a pace fitting for the elderly characters. Several hilarious cameos scattered through the film show directorial flare but Caine, Harvey Keitel (a has-been director trying for another magnum opus) and Rachel Weisz (Daughter of Caine’s Ballinger) give such stunning performances that steal the show. One long take monologue in particular with Weisz –  who looks absolutely beautiful here, once again – was electrifying. Paul Dano’s in there too, I love that guy.

“See how everything looks really close? That’s Youth” Keitel spins the telescope around so his young co-writer is using the telephoto lens against herself..“Now see how everything looks really far away?” . Youth celebrates the potential in losing control; not thinking too far ahead and not being hesitant – features of youth. It also reminds us to look fondly on what we achieve as we grow and that our latest doesn’t have to be our greatest.

8.8/10.

Where to invade next – A review

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Everyone knows the world is riddled with issues. What interested Michael Moore in his simplest documentary Where To Invade Next is the public perception that some systems are so fixed and deeply ingrained that not even the most innovative and optimistic industry leaders would ever be able to improve Quality of Life in America. Moore cheekily raids and “steals” the legislative assets of countries across Europe primarily and suggests that life for everyone, not just America, really could be so much better.

It’s actually fascinating how the world works. The statistics are publicly available for just about every anthropological aspect of life in  most countries of the world, good and bad: unemployment rates, economy strength, educational fortitude, ecological impact, mental health awareness… some countries handle these issues perfectly, but how? Furthermore, in this technological era where communication is often too easy, why haven’t we all cherry-picked from one another yet?

Using America and American history as a yardstick, Moore travels to Italy, Germany, Fra.. Moore heads to foreign non-English speaking lands to hear first hand from the people, the professionals, the police, the politicians on why they think they’re doing it right. The way he provokes people to share is funny and engaging to the interviewees and to me as a Brit but deprecating and shameful on America (Moore does not invade the UK though, worrying). He’s amazed at the structure of schooling in Finland and their quadrilingual students; the open-minded and powerful female figures in Iceland and Tunisia among so much else. Interwoven with embarrassing footage of American brutality and intolerance Moore’s morals are untarnished and anecdotally resounded idealistically but not unrealistically by everyone the camera points at.

Moore’s pondering of why place A is better for X than place B never delves deeper than the the people and situations he finds himself in; there’s limited number crunching, charts and infographics (more useful in Inside Job for example) which solidifies the idea that change is always more straight-forward than they want you to think and it comes from, and is ultimately for, the people.

This film is not just for the dispirited youth or millennial hipster. It’s for anyone who’d like things to be different and who’s hopeful that by pulling together we can ultimately make the world a community again.

Good grief, have I become Russell Brand?

7.5 Freedoms/10

What I’ve been watching, 2 – Haiku reviews

Out of Sight (1998)

Jenny with a Glock

Confidence, Cloons Kryptonite

Freeze frames are so cool.

Lincoln (2012)

Morals meet power

Good progressive change happens

And good movies too

American Movie (1999)

Who made B-Movies?

A man, a cam, and a crew

Even now, that’s who.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E (2015)

So all along she..

The English played that well, then

And Cavill for Bond

 

 

What I’ve been watching – 3 sentence reviews

High-Rise

Without having read the novel, this film is pointless.

Having read the novel, this film is disappointing.

A building’s inhabitants privately devolving modern civility into primal skyward resource-driven territorialism was what I hoped for, this was merely a sexy, confusing take on The Raid.

6/10

End of the Tour

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest demanded more of me than any book I’d ever read.

Interviewed during his book tour by Rolling Stone Magazine, Wallace was his usual self; eclectic, downbeat, mysterious.

A wonderfully acted accompaniment to the few inspiring recordings of a man who saw through America’s many veils.

7.8/10

The Magnificent Seven

Star-studded classic.

Worthy adaptation of a film that inspired countless others.

Firepower, wit and teamwork was enough for these Superheroes.

8.5/10

All The President’s Men

The Panama Papers, the Wall Street Crash, fraudulence in supposedly democratic elections – without the determination and curiosity of honest people in the press to report all this, where would we be today?

Clever techniques like split field diopters being used to separate one man’s working world from the pack’s and a powerful, concise script accurately represent the rush of being a reporter on the cusp of a big story.

One of the defining political texts in cinematic history.

8.9/10

The Bridge over the River Kwai

Alec Guinness’ mind-blowing portrayal of a man maintaining order to keep his sanity is second to none.

A patriotic testament to British power of will encompassed in the building of a bridge – for the enemy – that meets a fate not unlike the General in Keaton’s classic comedy.

My personal favourite PoW film Rescue Dawn shares the same dry, dour camp setting but Guinness’ manly performance takes the film to the top tiers of acclaim.

8.4/10

Son of Saul

Brutal, shocking, disorientating, horrifying; and hundreds more adjectives to describe a portrayal of Nazi Deathcamps like no other through the story of a Sonderkommando.

Tactical shallow depth of field cinema and the cramped aspect ratio focus our attention away from the unbearable atrocities in the background and onto the affairs of fledgling escapists and a man’s attempt to properly respect the dead.

It may be too much for some, but it won at Cannes for a reason.

8.1/10

 

 

 

 

Hail, Caesar! – A Review

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Masters of the movies Joel and Ethan Coen are back with Hail, Caesar! their latest ensemble film starring predominantly Josh Brolin, George Clooney and Alden Ehrenreich among a slew of other famous faces. Hollywood in the 60s, miles of aircraft hangar-sized soundstages organised in barrack-like order wherein various foreign lands and unattainable lifestyles are brought to life by the hottest talent week in week out to wow the masses; the Coens capture the energy of the thousands of people on the production lot whilst comically weaving classic genre drama, western, musical and prestige picture scenes into an uncomplicated, satirical noir.

I’ve mentioned before in my blog that I’m a fan of filmmakers’ films on film itself as I believe the modern filmmaker venting their thoughts into the medium often pushes the boundaries and develops the general understanding about what film can and should do. Therefore Barton Fink is naturally my favourite Coen Brothers flick, a film which reminded me a lot of Fellini’s 8 ½. In Hail, Caesar! the entire process is laid out clear, Brolin is an executive go-getter who basically makes the movies; he’s directly involved in procurement of star-power, management of budget, reviewing dailies and unfortunately when heroically-clad Whitlock (Clooney) disappears.. further procurement of star-power.

The directorial vision translates into a dynamic, versatile and gaily joyous romp around Hollywood with plenty of jokes, in jokes and stereotypically casted blokes. Literally, I think this is the most perfectly typecasted film I’ve ever seen. There’s a scene with a 4 different religious clergyman that aren’t only dressed appropriately but look exactly as you’d expect, the lawyers, the moneymen, the writers, the wives, the assistants – you could basically probably guess the character’s role by looking at their isolated face, incredible casting.

So, definitely see this film if you’re to keep calling yourself a fan of the Coens. Obviously not their best, probably not their worst.

7.8/10