The Neon Demon (2016): Slow and Weird (Review)

Elle Fanning The Neon Demon

Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon is, beneath its slow weirdness, a cautionary tale and a horror film that creeps up on the viewer. At just under two hours the film seems much longer and it seems to be almost a love letter to Italian maestro Dario Argento’s Suspiria

The action in this tale of a young talentless beauty “I got looks (sic) and that’s worth money” who attempts to break into the modeling business in Hollywood, is a 180 degree twist to the Ryan Gosling/Emma Stone vehicle “La La Land.”

Unfortunately the film moves at a snail’s pace and Refn tends to drag out his visuals that bit too long.  The director specializes in scenes that take forever to get through, sometimes with minimal dialogue, and while it works on some films, like “Drive” and Only God Forgives it only serves to frustrate and bore in The Neon Demon.

The acting, which is spot on by Elle Fanning as the new kid in town, along with Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks (in a blink and you’ll miss her cameo) is a bit hit and miss.  The only other performer who raises the bar is Jena Malone (The RuinsSucker Punch). Desmond Harrington (Wrong Turn, Ghost Ship) looks ill and the two other models are wooden in every sense of the word. 

Reeves is particularly good as the douche motel manager “214 has got to be seen” who seems too impressed by the 13 year old “Lolita” who just checked in.

Fanning, who is starting to steadily outshine her sister Dakota, is brilliant as the slightly vapid teen who wants to become famous and rich on the virtue of her looks alone. As the character tells her male friend, she cannot act, sing or write, so it is her natural beauty that must pave the way to her fortune.

Unfortunately, there is an all too familiar sense of doom to the youngster who seems to be heading on the right track. Everyone she meets is weird or at the very least damaged and we can feel that this will not end well for anyone.

Refn has pulled out all stops here. There is a taste of lesbian necrophilia, some cannibalism and scene that seems to suggest that female models are not better than dogs. (Think of canines and their disgusting habit of eating regurgitated “food.”)

The entire film has a “bad dream” quality to it that is in keeping with Refn’s near somnambulistic delivery, started with Ryan Gosling’s almost narcoleptic performance as the driver in “Drive” and continued with his later role in “Only God Forgives.”

Fanning’s character is, like Gosling’s, almost silent when it comes to everyday conversation. The young thing clearly is not thinking deep thoughts and if she were, could not explain them anyway. Jesse (Fanning) is slow on the uptake which makes her “end” not too surprising.

If there were any message at all with Refn’s latest effort it is clearly that “beautiful” people are not, as a rule, the sharpest tool in the shed. Ambition needs some smarts to back it up and Jesse lacks the knowledge to really survive.

The ending is shocking, to a degree, but somewhat anti-climatic. The film is worth watching, especially if one is a Refn fan, and is available on Amazon Prime, if you are a member, or can be streamed/rented, if you are not.

The Neon Demon may not give you nightmares but the 3.5 star film will make the viewer think. On a sidenote, Keanu Reeves plays an unpleasant character very, very well: “Wider…”

The Handmaiden (2016): Simmering Sex and Dirty Books (Review)

Publicity still from The Handmaiden

Directed by critic favorite Chan-wook Park, The Handmaiden (inspired by Sarah Waters‘ depiction of Victorian England in her book “Fingersmith”) is, for all intents and purposes, a “bodice ripper.” In other words there is a good amount of simmering sex and a lot of dirty books.

Updated to fit the time frame of Japan’s occupation of Korea, it features a beautiful pair of women who share an unhappy past. Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) has a lot of money and is orphaned. She lives with her uncle who has a large library of pornographic books that he forces her to read to an appreciative audience. 

Jun-su (Tae-ri Kim), a young pickpocket – whose male mentor is a thief of the highest order – becomes Hideko’s handmaiden. The mentor becomes Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and he “tricks” Hideko into marrying him.  

But all is not as it seems in this film. The uncle (Jin-woong Jowho forces Hideko to read porn to his paying guests may be the only character who flies his true flag’s colours. His only real artifice, if it can be called that, is to affect Japanese ways.

It is this affectation that allows the “Count” access to the man and Fujiwara’s pretending to be Japanese royalty is both his plan and downfall. It could be said that Fujiwara’s intentions are also pretty clear, he is like the uncle in this respect…

Hideko pretends to be an innocent in the ways of love and sex and Jun-su, of course, pretends to be a handmaid versus a thief. The latter’s instructions are to aid Count Fujiwara in his quest to bed and wed Lady Hideko.

Through the course of the film, which runs in three parts like the source novel, we are treated to the two women falling in love and some “soft porn” depictions of sex. We also learn that Hideko is not the wallflower that Jun-su thinks she is and that the reader of books is desperate to escape her uncle’s iron rule.

The film looks spectacular, even without all the lovingly lit and framed female nudity, and the set pieces, along with the costumes, help to bring the film’s setting to life.  The story, broken into three parts, reveals what is going on behind the scenes, although the final act really wraps things up.

Behind all the subterfuge and the nefarious doings of various characters, the film really is a romance. It chronicles, at the start, the two women and their gradual awareness of each other. What starts as an infatuation graduates to full sexual congress and they bond completely before the “Count” ever arrives.

We learn of Jun-su’s (whose name is changed to Sook-Hee when she starts work at the house) background and what makes the young woman tick.  Leaving out the lovemaking (there is not a huge amount anyway) the romance between the two women takes second place to the mystery of who is really doing what.

In many ways this feels like a combination of Stoker with a touch of “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.” For those who never heard of the book, it was a sensation “back in the day” as a story regaling the reader of a “lady” who fancied a bit of “rough.” A lot. In this particular tale, the “rough” is a young pickpocket and not a stablehand. (This really is down to the author of “Fingersmith” however and not Park Chan-wook.)

The film is a long one, clocking in at two hours and 24 minutes.  It does not, however, feel long. The story is interesting enough that it keeps the attention transfixed on the events in each of the three parts, or acts, as  presented.

The Handmaiden is a full 5 star treat and it is available on Amazon Prime, for free or can be rented/streamed if one is not a Prime customer. Head over and catch this one, if you can live with sub-titles, and enjoy this mystery/romance.

 

I Love Dick: Amazon Chick Lit in a Weekly Flick? (Review)

Kevin Bacon and Friend in I Love Dick

Out of the three potential pilots on offer from Amazon “Originals” I Love Dick is the oddest. Adapted from the 1997 Chris Kraus “feminist” book of the same name, it is a compelling bit of “Chick Lit” turned into a small screen flick. (That will become a weekly series if approved.) At least one female reviewer waxed lyrical about the show’s poking fun at the artistic community.

Suffice to say that is only partly correct. Jill Soloway has focussed on the educated artistic community.  The academic elite who masquerade their learned intelligence under a facade of high ideals and world travel. 

“You know,” says Sylvere to a young woman dangling her bare feet in a fishpond, “in Japan there are koi ponds where the fish nibble the calluses right off your feet.”  This line speaks volumes about the show and the characters in it.

While the academic author attempts to impress the young lady with his knowledge as a world traveller, he slips,  ever so slightly, into vulgarity.

He need not have bothered.

This ginger-haired female knows of what he speaks. They have the same in Bali, she tells him. “Have you ever been,” she asks.  Sylvere has not. (Not that one needs to, in Norwich, Norfolk in England there is a small mall that has these callus nibbling fish in a store. Presumably there are other places which also offer skin eating fish…)

I Love Dick is a title that just hints at vulgarity.  (One presumes that if Kraus were English the title would have been “I Love Willy” and the male object of her fascination would have been named the same.) It opens up possibilities before the first frame  of the show is even seen.

Casting Hahn as Chris aids in this  sexual connotation. The woman exudes sex from every pore. With her tousled look, sleepy eyes and bruised lips, Hahn seemingly advertises  rampant libido.

The plot, in a nutshell, has a female filmmaker; Chris and her academic author husband; Sylvere plucked from their urban setting. He has been accepted as a “fellow” in Marfa, Texas, a retreat for artistic types.   They go to the artistic community in the small  Texas tow and it is a rural setting they are ill equipped to handle.

Chris’ short film, that was due to be shown at the Venice film festival (Italy not California.) it is withdrawn because of copyright issues with a song in the film. They attend a party and Chris locks eyes with Dick.

She is lost.

Apart from the  “fish out of water” theme the pilot seems to deal with instant infatuation, obsession and those charismatic people who effortlessly capture our attention.

Chris is attracted to Dick instantly.  She decides to stay in Marfa after the author not so subtly denigrates Chris as a filmmaker. After Dick’s initial interest, he now seems less than interested in Sylvere’s wife.

She does not notice.

I Love Dick is fascinating to watch. The imagery, the music and the bubbling sexual interest Chris has for Dick makes this show oddly compelling. It has to be said that the premise of the series, these “letters” to Dick, is less interesting than the trappings.

The music is almost hypnotizing and it fleshes out each scene to brilliant effect.

The pilot is free to watch on Amazon right now. It is competing against Jean-Claude Van Johnson and The Tick. Head over and watch all three and see what you think.  Can I Love Dick work as a weekly series?

Amazon really wants to know and so do we. Tell us how you rate I Love Dick.

Cast:

The Tick: Amazon Superhero Spoof Attempt (Review)

Logo for The Tick

Amazon have released their own live-action version of superhero spoof The Tick. This will be the second attempt at bringing the Ben Edlund comic to television, not counting the animated series. The first time out, The Tick featured Patrick Warburton in the blue suit.

That one lasted nine episodes.

The time up, Peter Serafinowicz (Shaun of the Dead “It’s  four o’clock in the f**king morning,” Guardians of the Galaxy “What a load of “A” holes.”) is the blue garbed superhero. He is all teeth, long-winded rhetoric, super strength  and a very upbeat attitude. Pretty much like the comic really.

For a pilot about The Tick, he does not have as much screen time as his new sidekick, Arthur (Griffin Newman) aka Mothman in the comics. In this iteration of the verse, Arthur’s suit is less white and has shorter…ears. He may not be mistaken for a bunny in this show. 

As pilots go, this one starts off pretty good. The exploding, just above ground level, of the alien spacecraft above Tunguska, Siberia “back in the day” to The Tick’s voice over as funny and impressive.

 “Your reindeer are on fire.”

“Sh*t.”

This is a promising start.

It features Whoopi Goldberg in an Oprah-like cameo interviewing Superian;  a superhero who is battling  The Terror (played by the superb Jackie Earle Haley). Do not attempt to recognize Jackie, his character is too heavily made up. 

Arthur Everest (Griffin Newman) is a weedy, bespectacled chap who had a run-in with The Terror when he was a child.  The interaction was caught on camera and it made him famous. He is investigating the super criminal and has a sister named Dot, played by Valorie Curry (The Following, House of Lies).

The Tick and Arthur meet at a villain stronghold and  the meek man is arrested for trespassing.  We are treated to a flashback of his father dying underneath a superhero aircraft brought down by The Terror and some of his minions.

Arthur has a “tic” already. His eye blinks when he is nervous or stressed. Dot is not pleased with his arrest and she realizes that he is tracking The Terror again.

In the pilot The Tick meets Arthur, gives him the moth suit, which is bulletproof and will allow him to fly, none of which we see this time out.

This is a world where superheroes have been around since 1908 (Remember Tunguska?) and the public take them as fact.  The pilot episode is quirky and not quite laugh out loud funny. Thus far it is , however, weirdly amusing.

Serafinowicz comes across very well as the overly verbose super being, in a blue suit with antenna, but at times is seems…creepy. Certainly The Tick is not the sharpest tool in the shed but what he lacks in brains he makes up for with “everything else.” (His words, not ours.)

Apart from the animated series, The Tick has not fared well on television.  Patrick Warburton (who is an executive producer on this new series) did not overly impress as the first “live-action” version of The Tick in 2001.

Fans of the comics, or the 1994 animated series, do not like live action apparently. Or it could be that it is too difficult for them to make the transition.

It could even be too soon.  With Marvel and DC battling at the box-office and small screens of the world for attention with “real” superheroes, perhaps this is a parody out of place. Maybe in a few years time when comic adaptations outnumber “regular” TV shows The Tick may fare better.

However, the opinions of disgruntled fans aside, The Tick is amusing and looks to have  a lot of promise. Wally Pfister (Transcendence, Flaked) directed this pilot and he does a excellent job with the episode. 

The pilot of the show is streaming now on Amazon. It is free to watch and they want your feedback for this possible new series. Head over and check it out.

Jean-Claude Van Johnson – Amazon’s One Trick Pony?

Logo for Jean-Claude Van Johnson

Amazon’s pilot season is here and first up is “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” starring JCVD as himself, but not in his usual role of action hero.  In this outing Jean-Claude has a hidden side, a “black-ops” side.  Both JCVD and JCVJ are retired. Van Johnson, however steps out of retirement, which in turn brings Van Damme back into the business.

In some ways, this all feels too Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. While Jean-Claude  Van Damme is not Chuck Barris  in disguise, the premise is very much the same as the memoir. A famous figure has a double life as a trained wet work operator (or on Barris’ case a CIA agent.)

The pilot and its star are funny.  Although it is disturbing to see Jean-Claude looking “rough as old Harry.”  The muscles from Brussels may only be 56, and his physique looks years younger, but his visage looks more than a little worn.

Still, JCVD carries off his comic role with aplomb regardless of his battered features.

The storyline has Van Damme at a low point in his life.  He may live in a mansion and have coconut water coming out of the taps (faucets) but the man is clearly depressed.   He decides to un-retire when he bumps into old flame Vanessa (Kat Foster) who is leaving for a mission in Bulgaria. 

Jean-Claude meets with his agent Jane (Phylicia Rashad).  After going through a pile of Paramount scrips,  she learns that he is returning as “Johnson” not Damme. He gets sent to Bulgaria to work on a film as JCVD but has a black ops mission as JCVJ. 

The pilot is chock full of gags.  A lot of these poke fun at Jean-Claude and his getting older. Although we never believe for an instant that the man known for his splits suddenly has a problem.

“Jean-Claude Van Johnson” has a number of jokes aimed at the industry and society’s preoccupation with all things “PC.” The film in Bulgaria is a re-imaging of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  The gag, apart from Tom being a buxom blonde female, is “N” word Jim. (This will only mean something to fans of the Mark Twain books.)

There is an amusing reference to Timecop.  Van Johnson says it is comparable to Bruce Willis’ Looper “but a thousand times better.”  At his assignment, JCVJ is in disguise and everyone calls him, “Philippe.”  A nice build up to a funny moment.

The basic premise is that Jean-Claude is following his former lover Vanessa into the business.  Never mind that Kat Foster is 18 years younger than JVCD…

None of this is to be taken seriously however. It is a giggle, a lark for the fans of Van Damme.  Although exactly how it can be stretched for a weekly format is unclear. JCVD as an unrecognizable retired action star is funny. But how are they going to maintain the “out of shape” bit?

Still, the pilot is amusing. There is a bit with a flexible baton and Jean-Claude’s face that is very funny. A few other sight gags work well also and while the entire episode is not exactly “laugh out loud” funny, it does provoke many a chuckle.

(In terms of jokes, the “one at a time” gag is quite good as well.)

“Jean-Claude Van Johnson” may not really take off as a series.  Amazon may have some brilliant ideas but it does seem too much like a one trick pony. (Or a one joke show.)  In the pilot  Van Damme is good with his comedic role, opting to play it straight for all intents and purposes. And this works brilliantly.

Fans will definitely want to give this one a look. It is streaming on Amazon right now as part of their Pilot Season. Check out the trailer below and then check out the show. It is free as part of the “pilot” promotion.